It was, even then, a risk perhaps not worth taking. The owners of the Mets, fresh off the humbling and costly financial entanglement with a family friend, Bernard L. Madoff, sold a minority stake in the team to another secretive hedge fund manager and family friend whose operation was in the cross hairs of determined federal prosecutors.
But the owners, Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz, went ahead and sold a 4 percent share earlier this year to Steven A. Cohen, the owner of SAC Capital Advisors, who has seen at least seven of his former employees implicated in the federal government’s multiyear insider trading investigation. Three have pleaded guilty to insider trading while working for Cohen.
The Mets presumably had done their due diligence, although, because Cohen was a billionaire friend, a fan of the team and a season-ticket holder, it is unclear how exacting their look at his controversial financial past was. But Major League Baseball had to clear Cohen, too, as a consequence both of his interest in the Mets and his grander ambitions to buy the Dodgers.
Now, however, prosecutors appear to have drawn closer to Cohen. On Tuesday, one of his former portfolio managers, Matthew Martoma, was arrested and charged with being part of an insider trading scheme that made more than $276 million, the largest such case ever, according to the federal prosecutors.
In the case, the government for the first time cited Cohen’s participation in a trade that may have been improper.
Cohen has not been charged and may never be. Through his spokesman, he has vigorously contended that he is innocent of any wrongdoing, a contention that his legal teams made to Major League Baseball when his business was vetted to buy the Dodgers. He lost the bid for the Dodgers to a group featuring Magic Johnson. Had he won, he would have had to sell his sliver of the Mets.
If prosecutors eventually make a case against Cohen, which many in the city’s financial and legal circles believe they are intent on doing, it will be another whopping embarrassment for the Mets so soon after suffering huge losses because of their trust in Madoff and what turned out to be his Ponzi scheme.
If Cohen is charged, Commissioner Bud Selig could suspend him or compel the Mets to buy out his ownership share. Unless the Mets have another buyer ready in the wings, they would have to find $20 million to repay his investment, which could be a big burden for a club that went to Cohen and others precisely to raise desperately needed cash.
On Wednesday, the Mets and Major League Baseball would not comment on the latest legal developments involving Cohen’s firm.
Cohen, who manages billions in investor money and whose returns have been among the best in the industry, has not publicly discussed his investment in the Mets. He was asked by Wilpon, and said yes. It struck many who know of this deal as something more of a friendly gesture than an investment made with an eye toward big returns. And it was a pittance compared with his wealth.
“You have to scratch your head and say, ‘Was this the smartest thing in the world for the Mets?’ ” said Philip Aidikoff, a partner in the securities firm Aidikoff, Uhl & Bakhtiari in Los Angeles, who has clients defrauded by Madoff. He said that there must have been other wealthy people who were willing to buy a piece of the Mets “who don’t have the kind of baggage Cohen has.”
Cohen was one of numerous people approached to buy minority stakes in the Mets over the last 18 months, but only a few individuals ultimately did — the media investors Kenneth B. Lerer and Robert W. Pittman; the comedian Bill Maher; and James F. McCann, the head of 1-800-Flowers.com, who is also a friend of Wilpon’s and a formal commercial sponsor of the Mets. Seven shares went to Mets insiders: four were bought by Time Warner and Comcast, the team’s partners in the SNY cable channel, and three were purchased by the Wilpon family.
Cohen’s involvement with the Mets did not begin with the limited partnership he ultimately bought. In 2010, he was initially approached to take a big piece of the team — although before the court-appointed trustee for Madoff’s victims sued the team’s owners and the extent of the team’s financial problems were publicly known.
He was approached again, but the Mets made a deal with another hedge fund star, David Einhorn, to sell a third of the team for $200 million. When that deal fell apart, the Mets started to market the limited partnerships, which promise investors like Cohen relatively little because they have no control.
Some of the modest perks that come with the shares include access to Mr. Met, the team’s mascot; a free parking spot; an annual chance to throw out a game’s first pitch; a luxury box; and a return on investment of 3 percent, compounded annually if the stake is kept for six years.
Cohen’s investment returns are among the best on Wall Street, averaging about 30 percent over the last two decades.
Meanwhile, the Mets have racked up four straight fourth-place finishes, with declining attendance at Citi Field and losses that escalated to $70 million in 2011. Even as they operate with a player payroll closer to a middle-market club’s, they are considering whether to sign their most productive players, R. A. Dickey, the National League Cy Young Award winner, and David Wright, to long-term contracts.