Despite bankruptcy, hes still big donor to Jewish causes

LOS ANGELES — In an interview with the Jewish press in the fall of 1999, Gary Winnick was asked what he hoped to achieve in the future.

He'd be happy if he could "freeze-frame my life right now," he replied.

Small wonder. Winnick was then the wunderkind among a constellation of high-tech financial wizards. His net worth was pegged at $6.2 billion, and, coming out of nowhere, he was crowned as the wealthiest man in Los Angeles.

He also was a generous philanthropist, giving tens of millions of dollars to Jewish causes.

The 54-year old entrepreneur shot to the top by founding and heading Global Crossing Ltd., which built the world's largest fiber optic cable communications network under the ocean floor, linking 200 major cities in 27 countries.

But last month Global Crossing filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11, citing a debt of more than $12 billion. In keeping with the grand scale of the company's outreach, this represents the largest bankruptcy filing by an American telecom firm and the fifth largest for any company in U.S. history.

It may take a long time to sort out the causes and impact of Global Crossing's fall. The Los Angeles Times most recently reported charges by a former Global Crossing executive of questionable accounting practices. The company used the same auditor, Arthur Andersen, that is caught up in the Enron scandal.

So far analysts say the global network was not ill-conceived, just ill-timed in the face of a glutted market and a worldwide collapse of the high-tech economy. Few are willing to write off the company's founder.

"Gary Winnick is going to land somewhere, and he's going to make money again, and we all want a piece of it," one unidentified investment banker told the Times.

Shareholders and laid-off employees may be gloomy, but the beneficiaries of Winnick's enormous charitable donations and pledges should still be happy.

Over the last three years, the Gary and Karen Winnick Family Foundation has contributed and pledged well over $100 million, with the lion's share going to Jewish causes. Rosalie Zalis, once former California governor Pete Wilson's liaison to the Jewish community, has been serving as the foundation's executive director.

One listing shows 54 organizations as beneficiaries of the fund, from the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic to the World Relief Foundation.

The family foundation is supported by the Winnicks' personal wealth and is completely independent of the fortunes of Global Crossing and another Winnick company, Pacific Capital Group, according to a top source in the Winnick organization, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

That personal wealth is a matter of speculation, but, according to published reports, ranges from $600 million to $750 million, mostly derived from Winnick's sale of stocks in his companies in previous years. That may not be as impressive as $6.2 billion, but it's not too shabby a figure.

In addition, there is the Winnicks' palatial home, which is worth $60 million or $94 million, according to varying estimates.

By far the foundation's largest single donation is the $40 million pledged to the Simon Wiesenthal Center for construction of the Winnick Institute in Jerusalem. The institute will represent a philosophy and function similar to that of the Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

Winnick has met his initial obligations on this pledge, and the outstanding payments are linked to the institute's construction schedule, said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Wiesenthal Center.

Hier anticipates that construction will start in about 18 months and will be completed almost three years later, at which time Winnick's final payment is due.

Another $5 million recipient is Birthright Israel, which sends young adults on a free 10-day trip. A spokesperson confirmed the organization has received all payments on time.

The Winnick Foundation lists $3 million in matching funds for a Chabad girls school in West Los Angeles, from nursery school through fifth grade. Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, Chabad's West Coast director, said the payment schedule for the grant has been fully met.

Across the country, the Hillel houses at Syracuse University and Brown University each have received "multimillion-dollar" grants, according to the Winnick organization source.

The Winnicks have been "extremely generous" to the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said its president, John Fishel. That may be an understatement. The couple is believed to be among the top contributors to the Federation's annual campaign and building capital fund, and has given $500,000 to the Koreh literacy program.

"There is no indication that these pledges will not be honored," Fishel said. "Gary is a really caring guy."

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent