Governor says we've all "been lied to" on Sonics
Seattle Times staff reporters
State political leaders and a former co-owner of the Sonics reacted strongly Thursday to newly revealed e-mails that show team owners talking enthusiastically last year about moving the team to Oklahoma — even as they maintained publicly they were striving to keep the Sonics in Seattle.
"I have been lied to. All of the people of the state of Washington have been lied to. I'm shocked and I'm very disappointed," Gov. Christine Gregoire told KING-TV.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray said, "Clearly this ownership group never intended to keep this team in Seattle. I find that disappointing."
Former Sonics President and co-owner Wally Walker suggested Thursday the e-mails clash with the "good faith" pledge Bennett made when he bought the team from the local group that included Walker and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.
Walker, who has remained largely silent since the team's sale in 2006, said he voted against the sale, which was controversial among Schultz's group of 58 mostly local owners.
"For the people who voted for the deal, the good-faith, best-efforts promise was a significant factor in supporting the deal," Walker said. "This is not what they signed up for."
Despite the outrage, it is not clear whether the disclosure of the e-mails will do anything to keep the Sonics in Seattle.
Gregoire told KING-TV the NBA should not approve a franchise move "based on the lies of the last couple of years." A spokesman said Gregoire was working on a letter to the NBA Board of Governors, which meets next week to vote on team owner Clay Bennett's request to move the franchise to his hometown of Oklahoma City.
Murray said there's no role that she, as a senator, can play in the dispute.
Spokesmen for Bennett and NBA Commissioner David Stern said they would have no comment on the e-mails. Other former local owners, including Schultz, did not respond to calls for comment.
The e-mail exchanges were filed this week in New York as part of Seattle's federal lawsuit to enforce the Sonics' lease at KeyArena through 2010. The e-mails show new owners Bennett, Aubrey McClendon and Tom Ward chatting about moving the franchise to Oklahoma City as far back as last April — well before the end of the one-year period in which they'd promised to keep making a "good faith" effort to keep the team in Seattle.
In an e-mail April 17, 2007, Ward wrote, "Is there any way to move here [Oklahoma City] for next season or are we doomed to have another lame duck season in Seattle?" Bennett replied, "I am a man possessed! Will do everything we can. Thanks for hanging with me boys, the game is getting started!"
Some sports-industry and legal analysts said the latest flap may not keep the Sonics from leaving Seattle. But they said it could boost the price Bennett would have to pay to break the team's KeyArena lease.
The e-mails, published by The Seattle Times on Thursday, appear so "egregious" they might be enough to show Bennett's ownership group acted in bad faith, said Michael McCann, a law professor at Mississippi College School of Law and legal analyst for sportsillustrated.com.
"I don't think the Sonics will stay, but the complexion of the case has changed with e-mails that completely contradict the good-faith clause," McCann said. The city was not a party to the good-faith agreement — made with Schultz's group and the NBA. It required Bennett and his co-owners to "expressly affirm they had no intention of relocating the Sonics outside of the Seattle area," according to the city's court filing.
Seattle could use a bad-faith argument to demand more money in a lease settlement. The city rejected a $26.5 million settlement offer in February.
At the very least, Bennett and his co-owners demonstrated extraordinary cluelessness in committing their thoughts to e-mail, McCann said. "It's unbelievable that sophisticated business persons would lack the common sense to know that e-mails are records that are admissible in trials."
The city obtained thousands of e-mails as part of discovery in its lawsuit and included them in a motion filed Wednesday in New York federal court.
The motion seeks to force the NBA to turn over 20 categories of documents, including financial statements for every team in the league. The city argues the NBA has been complicit in Bennett's scheme to move the Sonics before the KeyArena lease expires.
The e-mail exchanges filed in court show a warm personal relationship between Stern and Bennett. In an e-mail to the NBA commissioner in August, Bennett praises him as "one of my favorite people on earth."
Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago-based sports-industry consulting firm, said the e-mails amounted to "background noise" in the overall legal dispute between the city and the Sonics, scheduled for trial in June. He said such cases almost always get settled before trial, because it makes sense for both sides.
"At some point emotion needs to step out of the way and the interest of the taxpayers needs to be at the forefront. And that is usually what winds up happening at some point in the discussions," Ganis said. "It becomes a win for the politicians, because they basically have scalped the team owner as they are leaving town, and the team owner does not have to deal with a year or two or three of being a lame duck."
State Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, said she thinks Bennett gave Seattle plenty of chances, despite the latest reports about the e-mails.
The money Bennett's group spent on lobbyists and consultants to promote a proposed $500 million arena in Renton, Prentice said, convinced her that Bennett genuinely wanted the Sonics to stay here.
"I'm not making excuses for anyone, I only know what I saw," she said. "He was very disappointed when we didn't even get a decent hearing on the Renton site."
Asked about co-owner McClendon's e-mail in July 2006 — just after buying the team — celebrating "the OKLAHOMA CITY SONIC BOOM," Prentice dismissed it: "This just sounds like guy talk."
Staff reporter Percy Allen contributed to this report.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or email@example.com
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