Did NBA officials suspect that Bennett violated "good faith" promise?
In an e-mail last August, Sonics owner Clay Bennett told fellow owner Aubrey McClendon that NBA executive Joel Litvin was "looking into certain documents we signed at closing that may have been breached." The e-mail was among several newly disclosed by lawyers for Seattle today in a New York federal court filing seeking to depose NBA Commissioner David Stern and force the league to turn over financial records and other documents.
Seattle Times staff reporter
NBA officials last year worried that Sonics owners may have violated their "good faith" promise to work toward an arena deal in Seattle, according to new e-mails disclosed as part of the city of Seattle's lawsuit against the team.
In an e-mail last August, Sonics owner Clay Bennett told fellow owner Aubrey McClendon that NBA executive Joel Litvin was "looking into certain documents we signed at closing that may have been breached."
That was right after McClendon's now-famous comment to an Oklahoma newspaper that "we didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle, we hoped to come here." McClendon was fined $250,000 by the NBA for that remark, but league officials ultimately ruled that Bennett's group had met its good-faith requirement. Last week, the league approved the relocation of the Sonics to Oklahoma City.
The August e-mail was among several newly disclosed by lawyers for Seattle today in a New York federal court filing seeking to depose NBA Commissioner David Stern and force the league to turn over financial records and other documents.
The city's latest filing argues that lawyers for Seattle should be able to question Stern personally because of his "private conversations" with Bennett about relocation and his support for the Oklahoma City relocation.
League attorneys have sought to block Stern's deposition.
"There can be no doubt that the sole purpose of the deposition is to harass the NBA and its commissioner," NBA attorneys wrote in a motion asking a judge to quash the city's request. NBA spokesman Tim Frank said today the league would have no comment on the latest court filings.
A hearing on the dispute is set for Monday in New York City.
Seattle's latest court filing also reveals several other internal Sonics e-mails in which Bennett pushes Oklahoma City as a new home for the Sonics as early as last April and complains about local politicians and media.
• Bennett also worried that McClendon's comments could land the owners in legal trouble. In an Aug. 13, 2007, e-mail to McClendon, Bennett wrote: "Yes sir, we get killed on this one. I don't mind the PR ugliness (pretty used to it), but I am concerned from a legal standpoint that your statement could perhaps undermine our basic premise of 'good faith best efforts'... "
That's a reference to the language in the contract Bennett's group signed with former owner Howard Schultz promising to make "good faith best efforts" through Oct. 31, 2007, on a Seattle-area arena deal. Indeed, McClendon's comments, along with other e-mails among team owners, have been used against the team in Seattle's lawsuit. And Schultz last week filed his own lawsuit, accusing Bennett's group of fraud and seeking to void the 2006 sale of the Sonics.
• Sonics owners began trying to persuade NBA executives to approve an Oklahoma City relocation as early as last April, when it became clear the Washington Legislature would not approve a $500 million Renton arena. Bennett e-mailed Litvin on April 23, 2007, saying the decision to leave Seattle was "not made in haste but in the context of now years of failing economics" and no prospects for a new arena. While Oklahoma City "is certainly a much smaller media market, this ownership group provides a unique relationship" with the city's business and political leaders and "can deliver a viable business operation and commitment to competitive teams," Bennett told Litvin, president of the NBA's league and basketball operations.
• Bennett displayed frustration with local politicians. In an e-mail last April to Stern and Litvin, Bennett groused that he "wouldn't trust [Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis] as far as I could throw him." He added that the political leadership in Washington state "has never valued the threat of moving to Oklahoma City. They don't even know where it is." Bennett noted that local politicians only reacted after he briefly raised the prospect of moving the team to Las Vegas. "They view Las Vegas as a true competitor," Bennett wrote, "and if Las Vegas values the NBA then perhaps they should more thoughtfully consider the risk of losing the Sonics."
• Bennett vented in other e-mails about the Seattle media. In an e-mail to McClendon and other co-owners last July, Bennett reacted to a column by Seattle Times columnist Steve Kelley: "All of these guys are against us. Seattle has the most inept and difficult sports media of any major market. That was the view of the league before we arrived and I now completely agree."
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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