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Originally published April 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 17, 2008 at 3:25 PM

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E-mails reveal Sonics owners intended to bolt from Seattle

E-mails obtained by lawyers for the city of Seattle show Sonics owners were talking enthusiastically last April about moving the franchise...

Seattle Times staff reporter

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E-mails obtained by lawyers for the city of Seattle show Sonics owners were talking enthusiastically last April about moving the franchise to Oklahoma City — despite telling the public and the NBA they were still interested in keeping the team here.

The city cited the e-mails in a motion filed Wednesday in a New York federal court seeking to enforce a subpoena for NBA financial documents and other records.

On April 17 last year, team co-owners Clay Bennett, Aubrey McClendon and Tom Ward talked about whisking the Sonics away to Oklahoma as soon as possible even though it would mean breaching the KeyArena lease, according to the city's motion filed in U.S. District Court in New York City.

"Is there any way to move here [Oklahoma City] for next season or are we doomed to have another lame duck season in Seattle?" Ward wrote.

Bennett replied: "I am a man possessed! Will do everything we can. Thanks for hanging with me boys, the game is getting started!"

Ward: "That's the spirit!! I am willing to help any way I can to watch ball here [in Oklahoma City] next year."

McClendon: "Me too, thanks Clay!"

That exchange occurred just after the Washington Legislature refused to authorize taxpayer money for a $500 million Renton arena Bennett had proposed.

In an e-mail exchange later in April, Bennett told McClendon it was "quite likely" the team would play in Seattle another year but that he was "attempting quietly and without litigation" to "work through the lease."

Bennett's spokesman Dan Mahoney had no immediate comment Wednesday night. NBA spokesman Tim Frank said the league would have no comment.

When his Renton-arena plan failed last April, Bennett said publicly that there was "little hope" of the Sonics remaining in Seattle. But he continued to insist he'd explore any reasonable arena plan to keep the team here.

Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr said the e-mails reinforce what many Sonics fans have suspected all along — that Bennett's group never had any intention of keeping the Sonics in Seattle.

"We all believed it. We didn't know it. Now we know it," Carr said.

The city obtained thousands of e-mails from Bennett's ownership group, the Professional Basketball Club, as part of its lawsuit seeking to hold the Sonics to the team's KeyArena lease through September 2010. Carr said those e-mails provide further evidence that Bennett's group did not live up to its promise — made when it purchased the team in 2006 — to make a good-faith effort through October 2007 to keep the team in Seattle.

The city's immediate goal in filing Wednesday's motion in New York is to enforce a subpoena for 20 categories of internal NBA records, including financial statements from every team in the league.

The city's filing in New York, written by Paul Lawrence, an attorney with K&L Gates, also argues that Bennett lied to NBA Commissioner David Stern last year about his ownership group's intentions.

Last August, Stern was angry about comments by McClendon that appeared in an Oklahoma newspaper. McClendon, the billionaire founder and chief executive of Chesapeake Energy, told The Journal Record, "we didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle; we hoped to come here."

Stern e-mailed Bennett that if McClendon really made that remark there would be a "HUGE fine." Indeed, Stern later imposed a $250,000 fine on McClendon.

Bennett apologized in a lengthy e-mail to Stern, praising the NBA commissioner as "a role model and an extraordinarily gifted executive" and "just one of my favorite people on earth."

"I would never breach your trust. As absolutely remarkable as it may seem, Aubrey and I have NEVER discussed moving the Sonics to Oklahoma City, nor have I discussed it with ANY other member of our ownership group."

The city's federal-court motion says that statement was "a cover up" and could not be accurate given Bennett's earlier e-mail exchanges with McClendon and Ward.

The city also filed copies of e-mail in which Bennett's ownership group reacted to its purchase of the team in July 2006 from the Seattle owners led by Starbuck's CEO Howard Schultz.

In one e-mail sent to Bennett and Ward, McClendon celebrated the news with the subject line: "the OKLAHOMA CITY SONIC BOOM (or maybe SONIC BOOMERS!) baby!!!!!!!!!!"

Other e-mails cited by Seattle's court filing reveal early discussions with Oklahoma City leaders about incentives to move the Sonics.

In June 2007, Tim Romani, an arena consultant for the Sonics, e-mailed Bennett that he would start "reaching out" to Oklahoma City Manager Jim Couch to "engage him in deal negotiations," the e-mails said.

Oklahoma City voters in March approved $120 million in taxes to upgrade the city's Ford Center arena and build an NBA practice facility.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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