Big Bad Wilf: Did Zygi’s Stardust Take It All Too Far?

Judge cites real estate family for ‘fraud, bad faith, conspiracy, racketeering’

Give or Take a Billion

Estimating the size of the Wilf family fortune has become a popular exercise, especially since it became an issue in both New Jersey and Minnesota. The two net-worth estimates cited by the media are a billion dollars apart, evidence of the family’s skill at flying below the radar.

The higher estimate, $1.3 billion, came from But the low estimate, $310 million from Sports Illustrated, is outdated or naïve. The family’s stake in the Vikings alone could exceed that. Zygi and Mark led the ownership group that bought the team in 2005 for a reported $600 million. Lenny is also part of that group. In August 2013, Forbes estimated the team’s value at $1.007 billion. Forbes also noted the team “could generate an additional $40 million per year from the new venue.” And that is separate from the family’s main business, the equivalent in a founding stake in the suburbanization of the Northeast.

Pullquote2Garden Homes has become one of the largest builders of residential and commercial real estate in the country, with properties in 37 states. It has built 40,000 homes. It is also one of the America’s most successful landlords. It owns and leases 50,000 apartments and 25,000,000 square feet of commercial and retail space.

It is undisputed that the Wilf family fortune is vast and the family has used its cash to donate generously to Jewish charities and educational institutions. The Wilfs are major supporters of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. They were the largest contributor to Yad Vashem’s Holocaust History Museum. Their contributions to New York University include the Wilf Family Department of Politics and Wilf Hall at NYU Law School. Their support for Yeshiva University is so significant that one of its four campuses is called the Wilf Campus.

According to a March 2013 Form 990 filed with the IRS, the private Wilf Family Foundation made 120 contributions, gifts and grants in the year ended Oct. 31, 2012. The beneficiaries of more than $7.3 million included New York University ($2,000,000), Yeshiva University ($1,012,500), NYP Weill Cornell Medical Center ($936,000), Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey ($851,250), American Society for Yad Vashem ($325,180), United Jewish Appeal ($261,000) and Newark Academy ($250,000). The foundation’s assets totaled more than $112 million. The family also donated $100,000 toward Hurricane Sandy relief.

Someone who understands the Wilfs’ thinking and their finances—and has, in fact, done some investing with them—says that any worry about the ability to pay their share of their stadium obligation is ridiculous. Despite their reluctance to write checks—one landscaper sued them for failing to pay about $7,000 in bills and told a newspaper, “They wanted stuff for free, then I come [to] find out [they own the] Minnesota Vikings”—their ability is in no doubt. Said the source, “Their cash flow is so incredible that they have to keep buying stuff just to put the cash to work. Their model is to hold properties for at least 15 years, and, really, they’d rather never sell.”

Likewise, their ability to pay the judgment in the New Jersey case is not in doubt. Under New Jersey court rules, the Wilfs will likely have to post an appeal bond for the full amount of the judgment plus interest.

Alan Lebensfeld, a plaintiffs’ attorney in the case, said the amount of the bond could be approximately $100 million. “I suspect they’ll have little trouble getting it.”

Lisa, Orin, Beth and Lenny Wilf at the Whitney gala in 2005—Lisa and Orin broke up earlier this year amid nasty allegations. (Photo by Patrick McMullan)
Lisa, Orin, Beth and Lenny Wilf at the Whitney gala in 2005—Lisa and Orin broke up earlier this year amid nasty allegations. (Photo by Patrick McMullan)

Meanwhile, it wasn’t just the good people of Minnesota who were wondering why the Wilfs kept getting richer while others associated with them got handed the bill. One former employee of the firm had accumulated an interest in several of their properties. He received K1s and 1099s every year reflecting the value of those investments. At some point, he decided to leave the company. The Wilfs offered to buy out his interest at a price point far below what he thought the stakes were worth.

“I hired an attorney and filed suit against them, and they did what they do in all their lawsuits: drag it out three-plus years. Finally, on the eve of the trial, a judge was assigned to mediate a resolution, and I more or less had to agree to a resolution that day, because I just couldn’t afford to carry on the lawsuit. I also knew that, regardless of how the lawsuit came out, they would appeal and just tie this thing up forever. So a similar thing happened to me as happened to the Halperns in the lawsuit that was recently made public: The Wilfs unilaterally decided to cut some of my draws, cut some of my compensation.”

In short, they had control over the books and operations and schlepped it out with their deeper pockets from a position of power—exactly the tactic that was alleged in the New Jersey suit and aggressively condemned by the judge.

Big Bad Wilf: Did Zygi’s Stardust Take It All Too Far?