On Monday night, the man who owns the Minnesota Vikings watched his hapless team be manhandled by the previously winless New York Giants. In New Jersey, the state where he and his brother and their cousin and their fathers had built tens of thousands of homes, a stone’s throw from Manhattan, where the same family has made its mark with dozens of luxury apartments and office towers. In the parking lot after the game, Zygi Wilf didn’t have much to say. He never does. “Every loss is a tough loss.”
The reputation and fortune of one of the Northeast’s leading builders is in jeopardy. Zygmunt, Mark and Leonard Wilf, owners of Garden Homes and the Minnesota Vikings, are facing financial pressure and public approbation from the recent order of a Morristown court. The judge, after a two-year trial, declared emphatically: “They robbed their partners!” The Wilfs now have to pay those partners at least $84.5 million. The court’s findings also have Minnesota taxpayers questioning the decision to give the Wilfs $498 million for a new Vikings stadium.
On Aug. 5, New Jersey Superior Court Judge Deanne M. Wilson found that the Wilfs cheated their partners in a Montville apartment complex. The judge excoriated the trio in uncommonly harsh language, finding they acted with “bad faith and evil motive.” In approving punitive damages, the court said the Wilfs’ conduct was “grossly willful. And it was done repeatedly.” On Sept. 23, the court awarded damages of $84.5 million, plus attorneys’ fees and expenses, potentially bringing the total to $100 million. In addition to promising a lengthy appeals process, the family is fighting to keep a portion of the trial record secret and facing a criminal investigation from the case.
The impact has reverberated all the way to the Gopher State. Groundbreaking on the state’s controversial Vikings stadium project is scheduled for November. It took the Wilfs and friendly legislators seven years to approve the $977 million stadium. The state of Minnesota and the city of Minneapolis are paying nearly half of the bill. The ownership group is on the hook for just $177 million. Governor Mark Dayton spent enormous political capital supporting the stadium and the handout to the Vikings, though he complained even before the deal was done that the Wilfs were not treating the state as partners.
In fact, as the New Jersey Superior Court found, this may be exactly how the Wilfs treat their partners.
Even if the Wilfs retain their wealth, the family’s cherished reputation and privacy, carefully built and protected for nearly 60 years, have been demolished.
This is a story about building a multigenerational fortune while staying out of the spotlight. For the Wilfs, public exposure has not come from hundreds of thousands of people buying or renting homes, apartments and shops. It has not come from decades of enormous profitability. It didn’t even come from the exposure of underhanded business practices, with a nearly $85 million judgment barely registering in the backyard of the world media center. The Wilfs brought on most of the curiosity, resentment and infamy when they tried to get a cheap deal on a place in Minnesota.
In researching this story, The Observer attempted to contact the Wilfs, Garden Homes Management and the Minnesota Vikings for interviews and comments. Calls to Garden Homes and the Minnesota Vikings on Oct. 17 went unreturned. In response to an Oct. 17 call to Sheppard Guryan, counsel to the Wilfs in the Halpern case, Mr. Guryan offered to make himself and Wilf attorney Peter Harvey available via conference call after 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 21. He also offered to respond to some items by email. After The Observer sent a three-page list of items for confirmation (including 11 questions about the New Jersey lawsuit, requests to comment on four quotes characterizing the Wilfs, and requests to comment on five additional legal proceedings), Mr. Guryan canceled the call. “We have reviewed the list of items you wish to discuss. In large measure, the items have absolutely nothing to do with the partnership dispute, which is the subject of the court proceedings now pending in New Jersey.” Instead, he furnished a statement about the New Jersey lawsuit, which can be found on Observer.com.