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Jewish Journal

No Setback in Winnick’s Giving

by Tom Tugend

February 7, 2002 | 7:00 pm

When The Journal interviewed Gary Winnick for a cover story in the fall of 1999, he was asked what he hoped to achieve in the future.

Winnick replied that he would be happy "if I can freeze-frame my life right now."

Small wonder. Winnick was then the wunderkind even 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.

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 on the ocean floor, linking 200 major cities in 27 countries.

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 Arthur Andersen as its auditor, the same firm that Enron employed.

So far, analysts say that 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. The final judgment is still out and 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.

Amid the current gloom of shareholders and previously laid-off employees, one group, consisting of beneficiaries of Winnick's enormous charitable donations and pledges, has retained its equanimity.

Over the last three years, the Gary and Karen Winnick Family Foundation, with Rosalie Zalis as its executive director, has contributed and pledged well over $100 million, with the lion's share going to Jewish causes.

One listing shows 54 organizations and institutions as beneficiaries of the fund, ranging from the American Friends of the Israel Philharmonic to the World Relief Foundation. Seventeen of these, including the largest recipients, are linked to the Jewish communities in Los Angeles, across the United States and in Israel.

A highly placed source in the Winnick organization who spoke on condition of anonymity, said 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.

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 during 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 Winnick palatial home, which is worth anywhere between $60 million and $94 million.

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 construction schedule of the Frank Gehry-designed Jerusalem institute, 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 the final Winnick payment is due.

The Skirball Cultural Center has received $5 million toward the building of the Winnick Heritage Hall for children's programs to open next year. The three-year commitment "has been paid up and fulfilled in advance," said Dr. Uri Herscher, the Skirball's president and CEO.

Another $5 million recipient is Birthright Israel, a program for sending Jewish young adults to Israel for 10-day educational programs. Like in most seven-figure donations, payment is spread over five years, and Birthright Israel, now starting its third year, has received all payments on time, said Joe E. Wagner, the organization's spokesman.

The Winnick Foundation lists $3 million in matching funds to go to a Chabad girls' school in West Los Angeles that will house students in nursery school through fifth grade. It will serve, among others, a large Russian immigrant community, said Rabbi Baruch Shlomo Cunin, Chabad's West Coast director. Cunin said that the payment schedule for the grant has been fully met.

Across the country, the Hillel houses at Syracuse University and Brown University have each 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 Federation President John Fishel. 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 L.A. literacy program.

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

The Winnick Foundation also lists a $1 million pledge to the Jewish Museum in New York. The museum's spokeswoman, Anne Scher, declined to comment.

Among other listed recipients of the foundation are the Anti-Defamation League, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, American Jewish Committee, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces, Israel Tennis Center, U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington and Yeshiva of Los Angeles.

Then there are Global Crossing's political contributions. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington watchdog group, the company emerged as a top political donor in the 1999-2000 election cycle.

Total contributions in soft money, to political action committees and to individual candidates, came to $2.8 million. Of this sum, according to the center, 55 percent went to Democrats and 45 percent to Republicans.

Showing the same evenhandedness -- and not included among political contributions -- the Winnicks gave $1 million to each of the libraries of former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush.

In addition, Winnick contributed about $100,000 to bring the 2000 Democratic National Convention to Los Angeles.

"Karen and Gary [Winnick] have always given with a full heart from the time they moved to Los Angeles and they will continue to contribute to the community," according to the source.

Although this statement does not come from an unbiased observer, the indications at this time are that the Winnicks' philanthropy will continue, whatever the fate of the company that created their fortune.

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