owner Zygi Wilf said the Vikings could move if a new stadium is not approved. (Tom Dahlin/SI)
On Aug. 12, the Minneapolis Planning Commission approved plans for the Minnesota Vikings' new $975 million stadium plan in a 6-2 vote that had the groundbreaking for the facility set for October. The plan called for the team to open the 2016 season in that new stadium, but a separate issue related to team owner Zygi Wilf and his family could delay the process.
New Jersey Superior Court Judge Deanne Wilson said in an Aug. 7 statement from the bench that Wilf "exhibited 'bad faith and evil motive' in defrauding business partners in a large apartment complex project," per the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The case, upon which Judge Wilson is expected to issue a ruling in the coming weeks, relates to Rachel Gardens, a 764-unit apartment complex in Montville, N.J., and the Wilfs' involvement in it. Judge Wilson said that she found evidence of fraud, breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty, and that the Wilfs violated New Jersey’s civil racketeering statute. The family was accused by two partners, Ada Reichmann and Josef Halpern, of cheating them of more than $20 million in a legal process that has dragged on for more than two decades.
“I do not believe I have seen one single financial statement that is true and accurate,” Judge Wilson said from the bench.
Now, the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority has retained the services of Peter Carter of the Dorsey & Whitney law firm in a mission to do "due diligence" on this matter, and that process may delay the stadium. FTI Consulting, an international forensic accounting firm, has also been hired to scrutinize the litigation, provide extensive background checks of all involved and examine how prospective NFL owners are vetted in the league.
Wilf purchased the Vikings in 2005 after the NFL's then-owners voted unanimously to approve the transfer of ownership from Red McCombs to Wilf. He has said that if he does not have a new stadium, a move out of Minnesota is possible.
Now, things are far more complex. Minnesota governor Mark Dayton, a longtime backer of the plan that would have taxpayers fronting $498 million of the stadium cost, said on Tuesday that he found Judge Wilson's statements to be "very, very concerning," and that he wants everything double-checked in the wake of those statements.
Judge Wilson's ruling could force the Wilfs to reveal aspects of their personal and professional finances that they have not had to before, which could certainly affect the stadium project over time. Michele Kelm-Helgen, chairwoman of the Sports Facilities Authority, told the Star-Tribune that “We’re just double-checking everything at this point,” but the other shoe could drop in a nasty way.
The NFL's owner approval process has come under fire in recent months after it was revealed that Jimmy Haslam, the owner of the Cleveland Browns, was involved in a fraud probe related to his Pilot Flying J trucking company.
"Jimmy Haslam is a man of great integrity,'' NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said on Aug. 1 of the man who purchased the Browns in 2012. "We're proud to have him as an owner in the NFL and think he's going to be a great owner for the Cleveland Browns and their fans here.
"He's as disappointed as anybody in what happened at Pilot J and he's working hard to fix it and correct those issues, both from a structural standpoint and to make amends. He's kept me very much involved. I think ... as he tells me, I was one of his first calls to inform me what was happening after he learned about it and he's been great at keeping us informed.''
The NFL has not issued a statement on the Wilf matter, but a league source told Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk that the NFL will not take action against the Wilfs or the Vikings based on the league's personal conduct policy.
GALLERY: Meet the NFL owners