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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax may testify for the owners of New York Mets at a civil trial accusing them of turning a blind eye to Bernard Madoff's epic fraud.
Former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau could also be called to testify for the owners, according to lists of potential witnesses released on Tuesday for the trial, which starts next Monday.
A jury of nine will decide whether Mets owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz acted in good faith in investing for 25 years with their friend Madoff or whether they willfully ignored warning signs of his estimated multibillion-dollar, decades-long fraud.
Irving Picard, a lawyer who is the trustee representing Madoff's victims, is suing to recover $303 million from owners of the cash-strapped Mets. This is on top of the possible $83.3 million of "fictitious profits" that U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff on March 5 ruled that the trustee can collect.
The trustee and his team of lawyers are seeking to recover about $20 billion in customer money once invested in now-defunct Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities.
Madoff pleaded guilty in March 2009 to the biggest investment fraud in history. He is serving a 150-year prison sentence for orchestrating a scheme that took in many of his relatives and close associates and ordinary investors.
Koufax spent his 12-year Major League Baseball career with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Los Angeles Dodgers. In 1972, he became the youngest player elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
According to the Mets owners, Koufax opened a Madoff account at Wilpon's suggestion, and has been a lifelong friend of Wilpon, with whom he played high school baseball in Brooklyn, New York.
"It strains credulity to think that Mr. Wilpon would expose his oldest and closest friend to potential financial ruin" by letting him invest with Madoff, if he knew Madoff was a fraud, the Mets owners said.
Morgenthau was Manhattan's top prosecutor for 34 years before his December 2009 retirement.
He would be expected to testify that Wilpon in 2006 donated $500,000 to the Police Athletic League, a charity that Morgenthau chaired, and advised that the bulk of that money be invested with Madoff, court papers show.
Picard has urged the judge to exclude testimony from Koufax and Morgenthau, saying it might improperly influence jurors into believing Wilpon and Katz were "good guys" who would not turn a blind eye to Madoff's fraud.
"The defendants are clearly trying to leverage their relationships with legendary individuals like Robert Morgenthau and Sandy Koufax to curry favor with the jury," the trustee said.
Rakoff will rule on the admissibility of witnesses. Wilpon and Katz could testify, as well as a variety of family members and business associates.
The judge has ordered jury selection for Monday morning and opening arguments later on Monday in a trial expected to last two weeks.
Wilpon and Katz have maintained they saw nothing suspicious in investing with Madoff.
Mets general manager Sandy Alderson has been quoted as saying the team lost $70 million last year. The Mets have been slashing payroll and selling $20 million minority stakes, each representing about 4 percent ownership of the team.
The case is Picard v. Katz, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 11-3605.
Reporting By Grant McCool; Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel; Editing by Steve Orlofsky