New details emerge from Sonics owner's combative deposition
Sonics owner Clay Bennett insisted during sworn testimony in Seattle's federal lawsuit against the team that his seemingly incriminating...
Seattle Times staff reporter
Sonics owner Clay Bennett insisted during sworn testimony in Seattle's federal lawsuit against the team that his seemingly incriminating "man possessed" e-mail last year was about his desire to keep the Sonics in Seattle -- even though he contacted a top NBA executive a few days later to ask about moving the team to Oklahoma City.
During the frequently combative all-day deposition April 23, Bennett also revealed the Sonics would lose between $61 million and $65 million if forced to play two final "lame duck" seasons at KeyArena, while the team could earn a profit of $19 million during the same period in Oklahoma City.
A transcript of Bennett's deposition, which previously had been withheld as confidential, was released Friday afternoon.
Lawyers for Bennett and the city gave no indication they were talking settlement during a pretrial hearing Friday before U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman.
Pechman issued no rulings at the hearing, but said she would rule by Monday on several disputes over witnesses and evidence to be presented at trial, scheduled to start June 16.
The city's lawsuit seeks to hold the Sonics to the end of their KeyArena lease in 2010.
During his deposition, taken in Oklahoma City, Bennett was subjected to intense questioning by Paul Lawrence, an attorney for Seattle. Many of the questions centered on the intentions of Bennett and his partners, who bought the Sonics in 2006 from the local group led by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.
Bennett said his goal was to keep the Sonics in the Seattle area, describing himself as "frustrated" by the refusal of local politicians to fund his proposed $500 million arena in Renton.
"The league wanted to stay in Seattle, we wanted to stay in Seattle, the sellers wanted us to stay in Seattle. We all understood that it was only through the development of a successor venue," he said, referring to a new arena to replace KeyArena.
"This deal sucks," Bennett e-mailed a consultant at one point during the 2007 Washington legislative session, a comment he said was his "emotional response" to the Renton arena proposal "getting bogged down."
When presented with other e-mails that have emerged in the city's lawsuit, Bennett said he was "shocked" that some of them have been portrayed as evidence he'd been deceptive.
At one point, Lawrence asked Bennett about his April 17, 2007, e-mail exchange with fellow owners Aubrey McClendon and Tom Ward.
In that exchange, Ward asked 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!"
In his 13-hour deposition (minus some breaks), Bennett said he was "shocked" when he first learned that attorneys for Seattle were using that e-mail exchange against him.
"I was shocked because I remember writing that e-mail and I remember feeling passionate about the fact that we're going to find a way to get this done ... [in Seattle]," Bennett said.
Lawrence followed up: "Did you write back to Mr. Ward and say, 'Oh, Tom, you've got it wrong, I'm not -- I'm not saying anything about wanting to get the team to Oklahoma City, I'm talking about my commitment to keep the team in Seattle'?"
Bennett: "No, I did not. I just dropped off. I knew where Tom and Aubrey were relative to their interests and I knew where I was and that was the statement I made, so I dropped off. And also I think I was responding to other e-mails at the time."
Lawrence then pointed to an e-mail Bennett sent just days later to NBA executive Joel Litvin, in which Bennett talked up the notion of moving the Sonics to Oklahoma City.
"So, just so it's clear, four days after you were a man possessed to keep the team in Seattle, you were asking discussions with the NBA about the option of relocating the Sonics to Oklahoma City. Is that fair?" Lawrence asked.
Bennett: "I'm having a conversation that is raising the notion of Oklahoma City as a potential relocation option, notwithstanding my ongoing commitment to efforts in Seattle."
Bennett's deposition also revealed that his efforts to land an arena deal in Seattle got some early aid from Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen, who suggested Bennett hire Seattle public-affairs professional Jim Kneeland.
Bennett said he and Blethen had "common experience and associations" because both were affiliated with family-owned newspapers. (Bennett's wife's family owns The Oklahoman newspaper in Oklahoma City.)
Kneeland wound up being hired by Bennett and ran his public-affairs and lobbying efforts to try to obtain taxpayer funding for the Renton arena.
A Seattle Times spokeswoman generally confirmed Bennett's account of Blethen's role.
During his deposition, Bennett also objected to Seattle's description that he was "breaching" the KeyArena lease.
"In my mind I'm not breaching the lease. I'm not attempting to breach the lease," Bennett said.
He said he would "honor my obligations" in abiding by whatever ruling comes out of the lease lawsuit. Bennett is arguing in the case that the team can fulfill the lease with a cash payment instead of playing its games at KeyArena for two more seasons.
Bennett said that solution would be better for all sides.
"Well I think it's come to the point in Seattle that this, this issue has become -- it's become ugly, it's become a distraction, it's become a very negative element in the lives of many people ... ," he said.
Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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