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Originally published May 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 27, 2008 at 1:38 PM

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More revealing Sonics e-mails emerge

Despite Sonics co-owner Aubrey McClendon's repeated denials that relocation was the plan from the start, two more potentially damaging e-mails were revealed Friday

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Sonics co-owner Aubrey McClendon insisted in testimony last month that he and other team owners had "poured our heart and soul" into trying to keep the team in the Seattle area, despite troublesome public statements and e-mails that have emerged in a lawsuit against the team.

In a six-hour deposition on April 16, McClendon was grilled by Paul Lawrence, an attorney for the city of Seattle, over several well-publicized statements in which McClendon and other team owners talked enthusiastically of moving the Sonics to Oklahoma City.

Despite McClendon's repeated denials that relocation was always the plan, two additional potentially damaging e-mails were revealed in a transcript of his deposition released Friday.

In early 2007, McClendon predicted that a controversy over his contributions to an anti-gay marriage group would improve the chances of the Sonics moving to Oklahoma City.

Later that year, McClendon apologized to principal Sonics owner Clay Bennett for telling an Oklahoma newspaper he'd always intended to move the Sonics. But McClendon added, "the truth is we did buy it with the hope of moving to Oklahoma City," according to a copy of his e-mail read aloud during the deposition.

The transcript of McClendon's deposition, and several others in Seattle's federal lawsuit against the team, were released Friday afternoon by Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr's office, in response to public-disclosure requests. Trial is scheduled for June 16 in the lawsuit, which attempts to enforce the team's KeyArena lease.

McClendon, the billionaire owner of Chesapeake Energy, argued during his testimony that the intentions of Sonics owners had been widely mischaracterized in Seattle.

For example, McClendon said a now-famous e-mail conversation last April -- in which he and fellow owners appeared giddy about whisking the Sonics to Oklahoma -- was really about keeping the team in Seattle.

In that exchange, Sonics co-owner Tom Ward asked principal owner Clay Bennett: "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 that he was a "man possessed" and would "do everything we can." Ward responded: "That's the spirit!! I am willing to help any way I can to watch ball here [in Oklahoma City] next year."

McClendon agreed: "Me too, thanks Clay!"

During his deposition, McClendon said Bennett's "man possessed" comment, and his own response, meant they were not giving up on a deal in Seattle -- despite the Legislature's rejection of a proposed $500 million arena for the Sonics in Renton.

"Clay is talking about his efforts to get a deal done in Seattle. He frequently would refer to himself as a man in motion, a man possessed. He's just been kicked in the stomach by Olympia the day before and he's saying, I'm not quitting, the game is just getting started. This is John Paul Jones saying I've not yet begun the fight," McClendon said.

Lawrence pressed McClendon, noting that Ward had explicitly referred to Oklahoma City. McClendon admitted it was "entirely possible" that Ward was talking about moving the Sonics to Oklahoma but insisted he and Bennett were talking about Seattle.

McClendon said the April 17, 2007 e-mail exchange was "actually quite helpful" in proving the Sonics owners had lived up to a promise to make "good faith" efforts through October 2007 to get an arena deal here.

Other testimony and evidence in the lawsuit has shown that Sonics representatives approached Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels' office in May 2007 to begin talking about an early buyout of the team's KeyArena lease, which runs through September 2010.

While no major revelations emerged during his deposition, McClendon was asked about two e-mails that previously have not been disclosed in court filings.

The first e-mail came early last year, after controversy erupted in Seattle over large political contributions made in 2004 by McClendon and Ward to an anti-gay marriage political committee. News of the pair's political leanings didn't sit well in the Democrat-controlled Washington Legislature, which was then considering whether to fund the Sonics' Renton arena proposal.

Jim Roth, an openly gay politician in Oklahoma, offered to contact Seattle media to defend McClendon against accusations of being anti-gay.

McClendon encouraged that effort, but told Roth in an e-mail: "The reality is it just improves OKC's chances of getting them [the Sonics] here year after next."

Roth responded: "Yes, and then we all win."

Asked about that exchange, McClendon said he had been discouraged by "personal character attacks on me" and didn't think that Roth's efforts would make a difference.

McClendon also was asked about an August 2007 e-mail in which he apologized to Bennett for the major flap over comments published in a profile in The Journal Record, an Oklahoma newspaper. McClendon told the paper that "we didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle; we hoped to come here." He was later fined $250,000 for the remark by the NBA.

In an Aug. 13 e-mail to Bennett, McClendon told Bennett, "I'm so sorry, the truth is we did buy it with the hope of moving to Oklahoma City," according to a copy read aloud by Lawrence and shown to McClendon during the deposition.

"Is that a true statement to Mr. Bennett?" Lawrence asked McClendon.

McClendon replied: "It is not a true statement with regard to the fact of what the plan was all along. The plan was to try and get a deal done in Seattle and if we couldn't get that deal done in the next year then we would look at our options, the best option of which would probably [be] move it to Oklahoma City."

McClendon said his comment to The Journal Record came "at the end of a long interview at the end of a long day" and that he hadn't clearly expressed his true meaning.

The legal maneuvering in the lawsuit has included a string of depositions that have drawn in political leaders, Sonics owners and others in Seattle and Oklahoma City.

Nickels, Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis and City Councilmembers Nick Licata and Richard Conlin have been deposed by Sonics attorneys.

In addition to Bennett and McClendon, Seattle's lawyers have deposed Oklahoma City's chamber of commerce President Roy Williams and City Manager Jim Couch.

Portions of the depositions were marked confidential and withheld by the attorneys for both the city and the Sonics, who cited a protective order shielding certain materials from public disclosure.

In particular, nearly the entire transcript of Bennett's April 23 deposition was designated confidential by his lawyers.

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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