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Originally published June 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 21, 2008 at 9:58 AM

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Sonics attorneys focus on city's "poisoned well" plan

The Sonics claim the city and local businessmen conspired to try to bleed the team, forcing them to sell to local owners. Entered into evidence Friday was an until-now secret document that discussed a "poisoned well" plan to separate Oklahoma City ownership from the Sonics.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Sonics attorneys in court on Friday unveiled e-mails and a "poisoned well" plan that they say link the city, its attorneys and potential local buyers of the team in a "Machiavellian" conspiracy to force the Oklahoma City-based owners to sell.

Previously sealed documents were introduced during the trial, which will determine whether the team will be forced to honor the final two years of its KeyArena lease. The documents mention an effort to "increase pain" for Clay Bennett and the other Sonics owners.

After a week in which Seattle attorneys sought to demonize Bennett for acting in bad faith, Sonics attorneys on Friday turned the tables.

They revealed a plan by a group that included former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, former Sonics President Wally Walker, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Seattle real-estate developer Matt Griffin and former Safeco president Mike McGavick.

Sonics attorney Brad Keller said Gorton, an attorney with the firm K&L Gates who was hired by the city to add political and legal heft, is the linchpin of the strategy to force financial hardship on the Sonics owners.

During a 90-minute meeting with Walker, Ballmer and McGavick at Walker's home on Oct. 7, 2007, Gorton distributed a document titled "The Sonics Challenge: Why a Poisoned Well Affords a Unique Opportunity."

The document states: "The critical path is to separate the NBA from the Oklahomans while increasing the exposure for each."

It also states: "The City has taken the first of several steps ... they hired Slade Gorton and used the misstep of an out-of-state arbitration filing to file suit, increasing the prospect of locking them into losses in Seattle."

"Gorton, et al., increase pain of staying, financial and reputation," the document reads.

During testimony Friday, Griffin said Gorton was the only person he knew capable of orchestrating the schemes detailed in the document, such as the mention of forcing "a pincer movement [to increase] the Oklahomans' costs in an unpleasant environment while increasing the league's belief [that] an alternative solution gains [it] a good new owner and keeps it in a desirable market."

Seattle attorney Paul Lawrence objected to the admission of the "poisoned well" PowerPoint presentation and argued the city did not create it. Walker testified that McGavick, working as a concerned basketball fan, authored the document. U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman, however, overruled.

Citing an "unclean hands" defense, Keller argued the city brought its lawsuit to bleed Bennett's ownership group, the Professional Basketball Club. The Sonics, who want to play in Oklahoma City next season, say the city's lawsuit originated in bad faith.

Lawrence was forced to explain Gorton's firm's relationship with a potential local ownership group that tried pressuring Bennett to sell the team while at the same time the law firm represented the city in its lawsuit against Bennett.

The potential buyers were Ballmer, Griffin, Costco CEO Jim Sinegal and wireless magnate John Stanton.

Lawrence argued the Gates firm did not act improperly, but Sonics attorneys revealed a string of e-mails that they said refute the claim.

In a July 19, 2007, e-mail, McGavick wrote: "Very Machiavellian stuff that [Walker] thinks might work, or at least be fun."

In a July 24, 2007, e-mail to Stanton, Walker wrote: "I met with the city today and felt better about my message of fighting Clay's attempt to leave. Make it too expensive and too litigious for him. I get the impression that they were in total agreement and that they [city administration] understand the value of buying more time."

In an Oct. 17, 2007, e-mail, Walker wrote: "Learn what Oklahoma boys are up to and if there is an opening continue to drive wedge."

In a Dec. 2, 2007, e-mail to Ballmer, Griffin wrote: "[Walker's] 'deep throat' at the league is [NBA President] Joel Litvin. ... I'll push [Deputy Mayor Tim] Ceis to help create more good news."

In a Dec. 18, 2007, e-mail Gorton wrote: "Bennett will only sell at a reasonable price only if he's pressured by the NBA or he faces an expensive and unpleasant legal future."

In a March 4, 2008, e-mail, Walker wrote: "The Governor wants to call Bennett to handicap whether he'll sell the team, before she is willing to take any political risk. It is the same old finger in the air, lack of leadership, that has gotten us to this dilemma. Think of how ugly the trial will be, how ugly the Sonics departure will be. ... And then we'll rely on an NBA mandate/approval that another team will move here after that scorched earth, incriminating process?"

During his deposition, Griffin said he met Gorton to discuss forcing Bennett to sell the team. A month later, Griffin amended his deposition and said he had no memory of the meeting.

Walker was hired as a K&L Gates consultant for the litigation against the Sonics beginning Sept. 21, 2007. However, the former Sonics president countered during cross-examination Friday that he never worked to make Bennett sell the team.

He admitted he maintained constant contact with Litvin and said he discussed a Bellevue arena plan with Ballmer on a golf outing Sept. 9, 2007, but said Ballmer was not interested.

Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata concluded the week of testimony and he'll return to the witness stand when the trial resumes Thursday. Lawrence said he plans to call Ceis as a rebuttal witness, and both sides will conclude with closing arguments.

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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