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Obsessively secretive Wilfs face tough judge curious about business deals

MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Mark Wilf, far left, and Zygi Wilf, left, celebrating with Gov. Mark Dayton following the stadium bill signing in May 2012.

On Monday, a New Jersey judge will decide whether or not to keep the Wilf family finances from becoming public.

As you no doubt already know, the Vikings owners, brothers Mark and Zygi, and their cousin Leonard were found to have defrauded two former business partners of millions in a 26-year-old real estate deal. Post-verdict, the Wilfs’ lawyer said that the family “has earned a well-deserved reputation for integrity and honest dealings.” Up ’til then, apparently.

The judge hasn’t yet decided how much they’ll pay in damages, but to hear Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority Chair Michele Kelm-Helgen tell it, the news shouldn’t be too earthshaking. She announced the other day that preliminary results of a due-diligence investigation was enough to assure her that even under the worst-case scenario, the Wilfs would have enough dough left over after paying the judgement to ante up the $477 million they’ve promised. Still, we don’t know how much money the Authority deemed worst-case but: a) it’s probably less than $477 million; and b) the Wilfs could appeal. 

In any case, the stadium deal doesn’t require that the Wilfs put up the entire $477 million. Some $200 million will come in the form of a loan from the NFL to be repaid from a per seat fee that normally goes to the competing team. And there are estimates that the team could reap about $274 million in stadium naming rights and personal seat licenses, leaving the Wilfs only $3 million short — and exactly where all real estate barons like themselves aim to be — using a maximum amount of OPM (other people’s money) and almost none of their own.

My estimates of what the Vikings are likely to garner from naming rights and personal seat licenses aren’t that generous. The Twin Cities are not, say, New York, which received $400 million for naming rights and the same for seat licenses. I think our team is more like the Cleveland Browns, who took in about $100 million in naming rights and $35 million from seat licenses. If so, owners might have to cough up — $125 million or so. Given the size of the Wilfs’ real estate empire, that shouldn’t be a heavy lift.

But that’s hard to know. The family seems to be almost obsessively secretive about their businesses. The state legislation that outlines the stadium deal forbids the disclosure of either the Wilfs’ or the Vikings’ finances; and members of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority have had to sign confidentiality agreements.

On Monday the Wilfs will have to plead with Judge Wilson to keep their business records sealed. It’s hard to say whether she will show them mercy. She already declared in open court that, at least in this particular business deal, the Wilfs displayed “bad faith and evil motive.”  In the course of the trial, she said, she had not seen “one financial statement that is true and accurate.”  

I am hoping that the judge forces the Wilfs to go open-kimono. Knowing anything about their past dealings is well-nigh impossible. The only discussion of their business I could find appeared in a June, 2000 issue of National Real Estate Investor.

According to Orin Wilf, Leonard’s son, who seems to be the most voluble member of the family, Garden Homes, a developer of single-family dwellings, began in the 1950s with Harry and Joseph Wilf, brothers and Holocaust survivors who emigrated from Poland to the U.S. after World War II. Gradually, the Short Hills, N.J., company spawned Garden Communities, which built and acquired apartment complexes. The company website brags that it now owns 90,000 units. You’d never know who owned the company from the website, however. Its “About Us” section names no names or staff members.

A subsidiary, Garden Commercial, according to its website owns and manages “in excess of 25 million square feet of retail and commercial space, which ranks in the Top 20 in the United States according to leading industry surveys.” Most of its holdings, with the possible exception of the poetically named Dewey Meadows in upscale Basking Ridge, N.J., are of the standard variety, a strip of cheaply built big-box stores surrounded by a parking field.

In a 2012 interview with the New York Times, Orin Wilf reappears as president of Skyline Developers, a New York subsidiary of Garden Homes; its most recent development is a luxury condo project where apartments sell from $3 million to $14 million. He and his dad, he also noted, own 5 to 10 percent of the New York Yankees.

But there’s more.

In tracking political donations (the Wilfs gave pretty even-handedly to both parties, by the way), I found that they listed several employers aside from the various Garden enterprises: Waterside Plaza Association, Union 22 Plaza, United Jewish Communities, Garden Hills Residence, Wilf & Silverman, JHW Associates, Lamington Developers, Lakeside Village Association, Mazdabrook Development and Kinnelon Heights Association. I suspect, but don’t know, that every single development they own is its own separate business.

And, another tantalizing fact: In 1997, Leonard Wilf and his then-wife were involved in what a New Jersey Court press release decribed as “one of the state’s most complex divorce cases.” It took two judges to resolve, one from the Tax Court who was asked to determine the gross value of each of 290 properties with a total estimated value between $60 million and $300 million. Apparently, long-form litigation is a family hobby.

All this is to say that I am not sure that a quickie three-week due-diligence investigation can possibly tell us the whole story — the extent and soundness of the Wilf empire, their past business practices and their possible penchant for Jarndyce v. Jarndyce-style lawsuits.

The Wilfs’ secrecy may not be hiding anything particularly nefarious. As Holocaust survivors, who lost every last stick and stone they owned to the Nazis and their Polish collaborators, the entire family may have become hard-wired for discretion.

But, if like Minnesota, you’re in partnership with them on one of its most expensive civic undertakings, well, you probably can’t know too much.

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 09/09/2013 - 11:42 am.

    They don’t have to touch the family funds

    There’s more than enough money in the Vikings organization itself to finance a gap of even $125 million without touching the Wilfs personal fortune. It would not be difficult to get a 20- to 30- year loan on that amount, which would be in the $10-$15 million range on an annual basis. That’s doable in the context of the team’s overall revenue stream (they get over $100 million a year in TV revenue, for instance).

  2. Submitted by Peter Fleischhacker on 09/09/2013 - 12:29 pm.

    The painting in the background is priceless. I see Ziggy as the church and the people of Minnesota as the Indians. I think the results of this scalping will be much the same.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 09/09/2013 - 12:59 pm.

      Nicely put !

      When I saw at this picture, I thought the caption for Zygi should be,

      “Can you BELIEVE it ? These schmucks just gave me a half a billion dollars !! “

  3. Submitted by Lucy Hynes on 09/09/2013 - 01:07 pm.

    Nazis and their Polish collaborators…?

    Surprised that the author decided to paint with such a broad stroke when labeling the involvement of Poland as ‘collaborators’ in the last paragraph. According to the Polish historian Leszek Gondek “only relatively small percentage of Polish population engaged in activities that may be described as collaboration when seen against the backdrop of European and world history”.

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 09/09/2013 - 02:29 pm.

      She didn’t say all Poles were collaborators,…

      …she merely referred to “Polish collaborators”, presumably a subset of all Poles – therefore consistent with the quote you provide, not contradictory of it.

      However, the point of the article is to question whether “a quickie three-week due-diligence investigation can possibly tell us the whole story” – which it OBVIOUSLY cannot.

      And this is particularly so when the MSFA seems to be hell-bent on making its final determinations BEFORE the final judgements of the NJ Court is issued – i.e., BEFORE being fully informed.

      Likewise, the MSFA oozingly changed the purpose of the investigation the Governor requested, little noted in the local media.

      At the time of the NJ Court’s blistering findings on the fraud committed by the Wilfs, Governor Dayton was quoted – “I would urge the Board to have its legal counsel assure them and the people of Minnesota that all of the representations made by the team and its owners are truthful and accurate,”

      Michelle Kelm-Helgen and the MSFA, however, preferred to alter the investigative purpose requested by the Governor to this alone: can the Vikings pay for their share ?

      Since then, we’ve not heard a word about “truthful and accurate”, as if it doesn’t matter at all if the public authorities were bamboozled with false information by the Vikings and the NFL. But it does matter. If the NFL and the Vikings induced these authorities in the negotiation of specific terms with false information, it’s simply another fraud.

      Combine this with the Wilfs’ terror of full disclosure, and it’s a pretty good bet there’s something here that won’t flatter in the light of day. We’ll probably find out the real facts some years down the road.

  4. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 09/09/2013 - 08:00 pm.

    Wilfs’ activities

    It seems to me the real issue is the state conducting such a huge transaction with these men who apparently have swindled others out of money. Why would the state do business with these people? Whether they can pay or not is almost irrelevant.
    Taxpayers will end up paying more of the bill, it seems to me, if Minnesota signs any kind of deal with the Wilfs.

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