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Originally published Tuesday, June 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Sonics

Sonics owner scores in judge's pretrial rulings

Judge agrees to weigh evidence of efforts to reach a local arena deal and of "dysfunction" between the city and team; author can testify for city.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A federal judge handed Sonics owner Clay Bennett some early legal victories Monday, denying several motions by the city of Seattle to limit evidence Bennett's attorneys can use at trial.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman ruled that, when the trial starts next Monday, the Sonics can offer evidence of the time and money Bennett spent trying to secure a local arena deal as part of its defense.

The city is suing the Sonics to try to keep the team at KeyArena through the end of its lease in September 2010.

Sonics' attorneys also can introduce evidence of "dysfunction" between the city and team, as well as a January poll that showed two-thirds of Seattle-area residents wouldn't care if the team leaves for Oklahoma City.

Pechman did grant the city one small victory — ruling that author Sherman Alexie can testify as a witness in the June 16 trial. Alexie, winner of the National Book Award, is a Sonics season-ticket holder who is expected to testify on the team's importance to Seattle.

However, KJR radio host Mitch Levy cannot testify because the city added him to the witness list too late, Pechman ruled.

Sonics' attorneys will also be allowed to present evidence of what they've called "a Machiavellian plan" by city leaders to pressure Bennett's ownership group, the Professional Basketball Club (PBC), into selling the team to local investors led by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.

The outcome of the six-day trial will be decided by Pechman, with no jury.

Bennett is arguing the Sonics should be allowed to leave sooner in exchange for a cash settlement. He offered $26.5 million to the city in February but was rejected.

Although Pechman's ruling Monday grants the Sonics' attorneys a broader palette of evidence and arguments for the trial, strict time limits should encourage both sides to avoid getting sidetracked.

Each side in the trial will be "on the clock" — getting exactly 15 hours over six days to present opening and closing arguments, witnesses and evidence.

"PBC may determine which evidence it chooses to present within the structure of the timed-trial," Pechman wrote in her ruling Monday.

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The ultimate impact of Pechman's pretrial rulings was not clear.

Paul Lawrence, an attorney for the city, said Pechman did not signal that she'd lend any credence to the Sonics' arguments or evidence. "She just said use your time as you see fit," Lawrence said.

A spokesman for Bennett said his attorneys would have no comment.

The main issue in the lawsuit is whether the city can enforce the "specific performance" clause in its KeyArena lease.

That clause means the team must play all home games at KeyArena through the end of the lease — something a cash buyout cannot make up for, the city argues.

But Sonics' attorneys have argued that forcing the team to endure two more lame-duck seasons would be unfair, and that the team should be allowed to pay a cash settlement to relocate to Oklahoma City.

The team estimates it would lose more than $61 million if forced to play out those final two years under the KeyArena lease. The team estimates it could make a profit of $19 million over the same period in Oklahoma City.

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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