A year after the owners of the Minnesota Vikings were hit with a $103 million civil judgment for defrauding business partners in New Jersey, Zygi Wilf and his family are trying to overturn a verdict that tarnished their image.
The Vikings owners have meanwhile made a series of other moves in Minnesota — including contributing an additional $50 million toward the team’s $1 billion stadium since November 2013 — that could also generate a more favorable view of the Wilf family.
Vikings President Mark Wilf last month served lunch to construction workers at the new taxpayer-supported stadium. The team also announced in December it would join 3M in a study to determine whether a plastic film could be applied to the stadium’s large glass doors, lessening the possibility that migratory birds would fly into the glass. Over the last two months, the Vikings also have won converts among local soccer fans with their plan to host a Major League Soccer franchise in the new facility.
Lynn Casey, the chief executive of PadillaCRT, a prominent Minneapolis-based communications firm, said that while the family navigates “a pretty ugly lawsuit,’’ she lauded the Vikings for responding to the harsh criticisms from bird enthusiasts. But Larry Jacobs, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, was less generous, saying the Wilfs’ recent efforts have so far been like pouring “a thimble [of] good will into an ocean of doubt and suspicion” created by the legal case.
Though the Wilfs declined to comment on how the family is now viewed — or on their latest legal strategy of critiquing the actions of the New Jersey judge — Vikings spokesman Lester Bagley said the legal ruling affected the New Jersey-based owners. “The judge’s comments were particularly harsh, and really uncalled for,” he said. But “the Wilfs are not investing additional dollars in the stadium [or making other moves] because of that.’’
He said the Wilfs were instead keeping to a strategy of making investments in the stadium, community and the team. “I think, over time, that approach will win out,” said Bagley. “They’re good people.”
Alleged conflict of interest
In ruling against the Wilfs, New Jersey Superior Judge Deanne Wilson said they systematically defrauded their business partners over a 764-unit apartment complex known as Rachel Gardens and that during court hearings — Zygi Wilf testified for 33 days — provided a confusing and misleading account of their business practices. At one point, the judge complained she had not seen “one, single financial statement” from the Wilfs’ complicated business empire “that is true and accurate.”
The judge’s ruling had a ripple effect in Minnesota, where officials scrambled to conduct a last-minute review of the case before deciding it had no financial impact on the new stadium that taxpayers are teaming with the Wilfs to build and that has now ballooned to $1.025 billion.
As they press their appeal, the Wilfs have said that upholding the case would “transform garden variety contract disputes” into much more complicated legal cases. But much of the Wilfs’ latest 212-page legal brief filed in late November and comments from their top lawyer zero in on Wilson herself. They accuse her of multiple legal errors and say she downplayed a conflict of interest involving her husband.
The Wilfs’ attorneys in briefs say that in a separate, unrelated case the law firm of the judge’s husband, Laurence Orloff, represented another law firm that was also representing a plaintiff against the Wilfs. That case, according to the Wilfs’ legal brief, “fully overlapped’’ with the case against the Wilfs.
Although the judge disclosed the issue during the Wilf case, the Wilfs’ attorneys said the judge was obligated under New Jersey’s judicial conduct code to remove herself from the Wilfs’ case. Instead, the Wilfs’ attorneys said Wilson awarded the law firm represented by Orloff’s firm in the separate case $2.6 million in attorney’s fees when she ruled against the Wilfs.
“It’s shameful,’’ Peter Harvey, a former New Jersey state attorney general now representing the Wilfs, said of Wilson’s conduct. “The judge had a direct financial interest’’ in the Wilfs’ case.
Appeal could drag on
The Wilfs have gained some influential allies. In Minnesota, retired District Judge Rick Solum has joined the fray, providing a written critique of the New Jersey case. He said that while he did not know the case in detail, the judge’s conflict “to me was a problem.” Solum was asked for his views by a Minnesota-based public relations firm, headed by John Himle, that has worked for the Vikings.
“The Wilfs may not have been afforded impartial justice,” said Solum, who said he has never met the Wilfs but has acted as a neutral mediator in cases involving the Vikings.
Alan Lebensfeld, one of the lead attorneys in New Jersey representing those opposing the Wilfs in the case, said the Wilfs’ lawyers were only now making the role of Wilson’s husband a legal issue, and during the trial “expressly said they had no problem” when Wilson disclosed it. “They consented to it,” he said.
Lebensfeld said that because Wilson was such a forceful presence in the courtroom the Wilfs appeared to be basing their appeal on discrediting her professional reputation. “They’re trying to besmirch” her, Lebensfeld said.
Harvey, the Wilfs’ attorney, said whether the Wilfs’ attorneys had earlier failed to object to the perceived conflict of interest was not important. What was important, he said, was that Wilson was obligated to recuse herself and not simply disclose the conflict.
The appeal, according to Lebensfeld, could play out for at least another year and lead to more legal mudslinging that may or may not benefit the Wilfs’ image.
“Going after a judge, saying that ‘she’s crooked because she said that we’re crooked’ — I don’t know how successful from a [public relations] standpoint that’s going to be,” said John Wendt, a professor of ethics and business law at the University of St. Thomas.