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

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

That lack of outrage might be changing. The Halpern lawsuit, with its over-the-top rhetoric, may have stirred the strangely docile Minneapolis protest class to life.

As The Observer began reporting this story, we started hearing, unsolicited, from skeptical Minnesotans, and not just Occupy St. Paul types, but lawyers and businessmen concerned that Governor Dayton, who the paper characterizes as “the leading supporter of the stadium,” had his pants pulled down by tough-talking East Coast developers. As a source close to the governor put it, “Look, who do you think wins when a N.J. real estate mogul negotiates with a Midwestern governor?”

Governor Dayton is an heir from the family that started Target. A recovering alcoholic whose erratic behavior earned him an article in Time titled “The Blunderer” and a spot on the magazine’s Five Worst Senators list, Dayton is an enigmatic figure in the Wilf story.

One person who knows the governor well and was a bit behind him at the elite Blake School says that the governor’s whole life has been a mission to prove he’s not the upper-crust wuss people assume him to be from his breeding and manner. Indeed, even Governor Dayton’s official bio page is peppered with exclamation points and Uncle Rico style nostalgia for the days of hockey glory and teaching in the New York City public schools.

“You’ve got this guy who was a star athlete—best senior goalie in a hockey-mad state. But his behavior in the Senate was so bizarre …”—Dayton once shut his office citing a vague “terrorist threat” and gave himself an F for his undistinguished single term in Washington—”that he wanted to come home and fix this image of himself as an ineffective weirdo.”

According to one Minneapolis businessman who knows Governor Dayton personally and is close to the governor’s ex-wife (Alida Rockefeller, the youngest daughter of John D. Rockefeller) and their sons, Eric and Andrew, who operate a popular restaurant in the city and a men’s boutique: “Dayton is a swell guy, but he’s just awkward in his own skin and never really thought he’d be governor. Now everyone’s mad at him, because he’s raised taxes, and he wants to be loved so he’s full-bore on this stadium. He doesn’t want to be known as the governor who lost the Vikings to L.A.

“NFL Teams all use talk of moving to L.A. as a threat, but it’s hollow,” noted the Twin Cities businessman. “The NFL is expected to sell its L.A. franchise for up to $2 billion. The other owners aren’t going to forfeit $75 million each by letting the Vikings move. As for the commission, it was a joke. Its only focus was to determine whether the Wilfs had enough money to come up with their share of what it’ll take to build the stadium. But their share is peanuts. because it’s so heavily subsidized—it’s a tautology. It’s like pro-wrestling: The outcome was predetermined.”

Minnesotans have been nonplussed by the Wilfs’ ingenuity at disguising their net worth, and their record keeping irked the judge in the Halpern case. According to Judge Wilson, the Wilfs receive payments from The Wall Street Journal for allowing The Journal’s transmitter on top of a high-rise they own here in Manhattan. But that entity, called Rock 54, was somehow intertwined with Rachel Gardens, the apartment complex at the center of that lawsuit.

The same habit of keeping convoluted books affected another Wilf lawsuit, as well—this one with deadly consequences. In 2008, workers at Lambert’s Mill Village in Scotch Plains, N.J., were stripping wood floors when all of a sudden the floor exploded. One died, and two others were seriously injured. The attorney for the victims, Gary Cavalli, told The Observer that “the workers all felt like they worked for Garden Homes Management,” but Garden Homes itself says they have no employees and that the workers were employed by Lambert’s Mill Village. Garden Homes claims that all their payroll records were “lost in a storm”—Mr. Cavalli cannot recall which of New Jersey’s many recent disasters that would be.

“We’ve taken about a dozen depositions of laborers and superintendents, and they all feel they worked for Garden Homes Management, which comes back to an address at 820 Morris Avenue in Short Hills, which coincidentally is where the Wilfs are located.” Mr. Cavalli has had to sue more than 30 entities and last week made a motion to the judge to put a discovery master in place, “because we’re having difficulty moving the case along.” It’s classic Wilf wait-’em-out strategy—a perfect example echoed by one headline in the Star Tribune that read: “Vikings owners own stake in 460 separate businesses and are persistent courtroom adversaries.”

Meanwhile, in Minnesota, to the surprise of no one, the commission came back with a determination that the Wilfs have enough to cover their paltry share. “Right now, we feel real comfortable that we can move forward,” declared Michele Kelm-Helgen, the chairwoman of the sports authority, despite “one potential future issue,” obviously referring to the ongoing Halpern litigation.

So the stadium must go on, and, with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell writing that the league “strongly supports this project” and loaning the Wilfs $200 million to cover almost half of their chunk of the $477 million the Vikings have to provide, the financing seems to be lined up.

Running Out the Clock

The Wilf family, backed by 60 years of business success, is proceeding as if unaffected by the scrutiny, criticism and potential financial burdens of the Halpern case and the Vikings stadium.

The Halpern case has no end in sight. It has gone on 21 years and worn out three judges. The most recent trial, producing the damage award of $84.5 million in Judge Wilson’s Morristown courtroom, took 207 trial days during a two-year period and produced a 25,000-page transcript with 1,600 exhibits. Closing arguments alone lasted 18 days.

The only parallel is Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the fictional case with the disturbingly similar name, described by Charles Dickens in Bleak House. In Minnesota, the Wilfs say they have their end of the stadium expense covered. More important, the people footing most of the bill—the state of Minnesota, the city of Minneapolis, and the NFL—are moving forward.

On Sept. 23, Wilf family attorney Peter Harvey, said. “The stadium will be built. and there’s going to be an opening kickoff long before this case is decided by the appellate division and ultimately, if necessary, the New Jersey Supreme Court.”

Nobody doubts it. As Zygi said long ago, the train has left the station.

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