Jury selection to begin in Mets/Madoff trial

Jury selection begins Monday in lower Manhattan as Fred Wilpon and his family try to stave off a "clawback" lawsuit in U.S. District Court by the trustee charged with unraveling jailed financier Bernard L. Madoff's Ponzi scheme.

Judge Jed S. Rakoff has already determined that the Wilpons will need to return as much as $83.3 million -- representing profits from the final two years of their investments with Madoff. At stake is an additional $303 million, representing the alleged principal from the family's investing with Madoff during that period.

Wilpon family members and fellow investors will have to prove that they were not willfully blind to the fraudulent nature of the Madoff investment scheme. The Wilpons reject all assertions that they acted improperly.

The trustee charged with liquidating assets from the Madoff business is Irving H. Picard, who is setting out to show that the group of investors affiliated with the defendants were sophisticated enough to spot potential fraud. Picard contends that the Wilpons were so motivated by the Madoff money that they were not more diligent in verifying the fund.

Security will be tight, and reporters will have to jockey for a limited number of seats in the courtroom.

Once the jury is selected, the Wilpons have asked to call Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax as a witness, as well as former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morganthau. The judge has yet to rule on several contested issues, notably the appearance of Koufax, a Wilpon friend and Madoff investor. Picard has asked Rakoff not to allow the former pitcher to testify, claiming his celebrity could sway the jury.

Picard's most interesting witness could be Noreen Harrington, a former Wall Street whistle-blower who is expected to testify that she told Wilpon and Saul Katz -- Wilpon's brother-in-law -- that Madoff's returns were too good to be true.

Ultimately, the outcome of the trial could affect the ability of the cash-strapped Wilpons to keep the Mets, who are seeking investors and operating under an austerity budget this season.

Wilpon addressed the media at spring training, saying fans didn't have to worry about the outcome of the case. "They shouldn't be concerned about us owning the franchise, because we intend to own the franchise for a very long time," Wilpon said.