MORRISTOWN, N.J. – The complexity of Vikings owner Zygi Wilf’s business world has been a major focus in the lengthy civil trial that has made headlines in both New Jersey and Minnesota.
The judge in the New Jersey case, in summarizing the trial, has talked of the Wilfs having an ownership stake in 460 separate business entities. An accountant for the Wilfs, according to one lawyer in the case, has told the court of preparing roughly 700 separate tax returns. The family’s businesses, according to the family, are spread over 37 states, including New Jersey, California, Florida and New York’s Manhattan skyline.
There were even pictures of Zygi Wilf, as the trial dragged on, posing at last year’s New York premiere of the movie “Smashed,” which lists him as an executive producer.
In Minnesota, the stadium authority overseeing the Vikings’ new $975 million stadium has concluded — even before the New Jersey trial finishes — that the family has more than enough money to help contribute to the project’s cost. The stadium authority’s chairwoman, Michele Kelm- Helgen, said last week that an investigation also showed that “everything” on a background check of the Wilfs “has come back very clean.”
For all of their real estate holdings in New Jersey and on the East Coast, the legal trail left behind by the Wilfs is relatively skimpy, but complicated.
There are a handful of other lawsuits, in New Jersey and elsewhere, that involve everything from federal allegations that the Wilfs’ companies discriminated against blacks in renting apartments to charges by a landscaping contractor that Wilfs’ companies were “nickel and diming” him.
In the New Jersey case in Morristown, a state Superior Court judge has found Wilf and his family guilty of an intricate plan to defraud their business partners regarding a 764-unit apartment complex. As she prepares to announce civil penalties the Wilfs will have to pay, Judge Deanne Wilson has on repeated occasions complained of how difficult it has been to unravel the Wilfs’ many interrelated companies because of a lack of records and the Wilfs’ own confusing testimony. She has also outlined how the bookkeeping for many of the companies has been done, in keeping with the Wilfs’ low profile, at a nondescript office building next to a Walgreens in Short Hills, N.J.
The family, through Vikings spokesman Lester Bagley, declined to comment for this article. The Wilfs’ lawyers in New Jersey have meanwhile cast the Morristown case as an anomaly, saying that “as with many businesses, disputes occasionally arise.”
Wilson moved slowly during one phase of the New Jersey case to explain how Rachel Gardens, the apartment complex at the center of the dispute, was financially intertwined with the Wilfs’ Manhattan high rise — known as Rock 54, and located miles away. In picking through the Wilfs’ many different companies, she said Rock 54 received money from the Wall Street Journal for the media conglomerate’s transmitting towers located atop the building. As part of the family’s presence in New York, the Wilfs have talked proudly of helping create the first private school in the area near Wall Street.
The intertwined holdings have been the focus of other lawsuits.
In 2008, three workers were stripping wood floors in an apartment building in New Jersey when the chemical they were using ignited, causing an explosion that killed one of them and severely injured the other two men.
Five years later, attorney Gary Cavalli is still not sure who employed the men — he has sued more than 30 companies, most believed to be in one way or another linked to the Wilfs. Cavalli said in court documents that after a 15-month effort to obtain company documents he was told the records had been lost in a flood.
“Everything is incorporated under a separate entity,” said Cavalli.
One five-page document in the case illustrated the complexities involved. An attorney for Garden Homes Management Corp., one of the defendants, acknowledged that the company did have “purchasing accounts” related to Lambert’s Mill Village, where the explosion occurred. But the attorney said Garden Homes Management had no employees.
The attorney said Zygi Wilf and his younger brother, Mark, the president of the Vikings, together owned 40 percent of Garden Homes Management and Leonard Wilf, a cousin and also the Vikings’ vice chairman, owned another 50 percent.
In another New Jersey case, Zygi Wilf has been sued this year for giving a contract to provide coin-operated laundry machines in two Wilf properties to his brother-in-law. The lawsuit claims the Wilfs violated a contract the family had with another company that had a first right of refusal to renew the business relationship.
The Wilfs’ said the company had already gotten a settlement, and instead insisted that the Wilfs were owed money because the company that lost the contract took too long to vacate the premises.
Garden Homes Management Corp. also was accused by the federal government in 1999 of not renting to African Americans and, after agreeing to a consent order in September 2001, was found in contempt for not pursuing remedies. At one point, a federal judge pushed for a $1,000-a-day fine against the Wilfs.
As part of the investigation, federal officials said, a white renter was told there were vacancies at Lakeview Garden Apartments in New Jersey one day after a black applicant at the same complex was told there were no vacancies and that there already was a waiting list of 18 to 20 people. The complex, federal officials added, also discouraged families with children from renting or limited them to first-floor apartments.
The case was later settled, but not before the Wilfs and federal officials squabbled over when the company should have begun pursuing remedies.
The Wilfs also have faced state penalties and tax liens. In 2003, according to State of New Jersey documents, the family was penalized $680,216 by the state’s bureau of housing inspection. The money was repaid five years later.
In the early 1990s, records also showed that Zygi and Leonard Wilf and a third person owed the state $47,174 in wage report penalties under the state’s unemployment compensation law. The money, according to state documents, was likewise later repaid.
There also have been more minor cases. Zygi Wilf filed a lawsuit in New Jersey earlier this year when he rented four personal exercise machines, claimed an elliptical machine did not fit in the room he wanted to put it in and wanted his rental fee and security deposit back.
James Alexis said the Wilfs can be persistent courtroom adversaries — no matter how little money is involved. Alexis owns Professional Edge Landscaping and in 2010 sued the Wilfs in New Jersey for failing to pay just under $7,000 in past due bills.
“They wanted stuff for free,” he said. Then “I come [to] find out [they own the] Minnesota Vikings.” Alexis said he eventually settled the lawsuit for less money.
Questions about bookkeeping
In the Morristown, N.J., case, the judge said she was continually confused by Zygi Wilf’s finances. Wilson said, for example, she was frustrated with Zygi Wilf’s explanation regarding the profits of Garden Homes Agency, a company that provided bulk insurance coverage for the Wilfs’ properties.
The judge said that Zygi Wilf testified that Garden Homes Agency “pretty much, generally” does not make a profit, and that any financial distributions from the company to him were “many years ago.” But she said the evidence showed otherwise. The judge said records from the trial showed that from 1991 to 2009 the company “made a substantial profit,” and said the total was $18.4 million.
Wilf, the judge said, later added that there might have been some years when the company made a profit, and added that “there’s nothing against the law that says I shouldn’t be able to operate at a profitable situation.”
She also chastised Zygi Wilf in court last month for having selective memory in not being able to explain why Rachel Gardens was being charged substantially more for insurance than other Wilf projects.
Wilf, according to the judge, seemed to have little criteria for choosing which projects were charged more. “Once again, I have no idea what the witness’ answer actually was, or what he was doing, or why he did what he did,” said the judge.