Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax is among witnesses scheduled to testify at a trial next week to determine if the Mets' owners must give up millions of dollars they received from jailed financier Bernard Madoff.
Koufax's name is on a list submitted Tuesday to a federal judge of a dozen witnesses who Mets' lawyers plan to call to the witness stand at the Manhattan civil trial. Koufax is a childhood friend of Mets chief executive Fred Wilpon and also had an account with Madoff.
Lawyers for Irving Picard, a trustee recovering money for investors who lost billions of dollars in the Madoff fraud, filed papers late Monday to try to block testimony from Koufax and three other witnesses, including former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau and two prominent businessmen.
Picard has said the Mets' owners, including Wilpon and Mets President Saul Katz knew or should have known that Madoff was acting illegally. A judge has said the Mets could be forced to pay up to $300 million if a jury agrees, though he has expressed pessimism that it would.
In court papers, Picard's lawyers said Koufax and the other three witnesses have "high profile and impressive credentials" but have no knowledge about whether the Mets' owners were "willfully blind" to the Madoff fraud. "Willfully blind" is a legal standard that will be used at the trial to decide whether the Mets' owners owe more than the up to $83 million that Judge Jed Rakoff has already ruled they must pay.
The lawyers wrote that the true purpose of testimony by Morgenthau and Koufax would be "to suggest that Saul Katz and Fred Wilpon are 'good guys' who would not turn a blind eye to fraud."
They added: "Here, the defendants attempt to ... distract the jury by shifting the focus to Saul Katz's and Fred Wilpon's association with well-respected individuals and away from whether they were willfully blind. The defendants clearly intend to attempt to improperly persuade the jury that they are 'good' because they associate with good people, or have done good works, and as such they cannot be guilty of anything as untoward as willful blindness to fraud."
In papers of their own, lawyers for the Mets' owners defended their plans to call Koufax and the others, saying their testimony would not amount to character evidence but rather would show the Mets' owners did not believe Madoff was a fraud because they were recommending their closest friends and charities they supported as investors.
The papers noted that Koufax and Wilpon played high school baseball together in Brooklyn and that Koufax opened an account with Madoff only after Wilpon told him positive things about Madoff's investment company.
"From this evidence the jury can conclude that it strains credibility to think that Mr. Wilpon would expose his oldest and closest friend to potential financial ruin — for no benefit to Mr. Wilpon himself — if he subjectively believed that Madoff Securities might be operating a Ponzi scheme," the lawyers wrote.
The trustee's lawyers also sought to exclude evidence that lawyers for the Mets' owners might submit to the jury to show that the Securities and Exchange Commission failed to unearth Madoff's fraud before he revealed it to the FBI in December 2008. They said it would "create a sideshow." Madoff later pleaded guilty to fraud charges and was sentenced to 150 years in prison for cheating thousands of investors out of roughly $20 billion.
Lawyers for the Mets' owners have asked the judge to prevent Picard's lawyers from using the phrase "other people's money" at trial to suggest that Picard is a "later day Robin Hood, taking from the unjustly enriched in order to give back to the innocent victims." They said allowing such references would be "inflammatory, irrelevant and prejudicial."
"This is not a case about the other victims of Madoff's scheme," they wrote. "To invite the jurors to base their decision on sympathy or concern for the other alleged victims, about whom they will have heard no evidence, would be improper and prejudicial."