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Originally published June 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 12, 2008 at 8:25 AM

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Sonics lawsuit has cost Seattle more than $1 million so far

Even before the high-profile Sonics trial starts Monday, the city of Seattle already has racked up more than $1 million in legal bills in...

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Even before the high-profile Sonics trial starts Monday, the city of Seattle already has racked up more than $1 million in legal bills in its federal lawsuit against the team.

Those fees have been charged by K&L Gates, the private law firm handling most of the work in the city's lawsuit to enforce the Sonics' KeyArena lease. As of May 19 — the last time the firm billed Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr's office — the fees had surpassed $1.1 million, city records show.

That money has paid for some of the top attorneys at K&L Gates, including former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, who bills $685 an hour — even with the 10 percent discount the firm granted the city.

Gorton is not expected to appear in court next week, but K&L Gates partner Paul Lawrence ($420 an hour) will be the city's lead trial attorney, delivering opening arguments Monday morning.

K&L Gates partners Jeffrey Johnson and Gerry Johnson also have worked on the lease case, along with several associate attorneys and paralegals.

The legal bills already have topped the $1 million estimate made by Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis last September, when he announced the city was "lawyering up" by bringing Gorton and his firm on board.

The city's lawsuit seeks to force the Sonics to play out the final two seasons of the lease through September 2010. Sonics owner Clay Bennett wants to pay a cash settlement in exchange for terminating the lease now so he can move the team to Oklahoma City.

Alex Fryer, a spokesman for Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, said the city is paying the legal fees out of its judgment/claims fund, which sets aside money for lawsuits. The city's 2008 budget allots a total of $19 million for that fund.

Carr said he was aware of the mounting expense and said the city was trying to get K&L Gates to watch its costs — which don't include time spent by the City Attorney's Office on the case. (An assistant city attorney, Greg Narver, is expected to handle portions of the trial next week.)

Carr said the stakes in the Sonics lawsuit are high. The case could determine how much Bennett has to pay the city if the Sonics were to leave town. The city rejected a $26.5 million settlement offer in February.

"We're dealing with a case involving a lot of money here. We wouldn't want to save $50,000 and risk the case," Carr said.

The city also has asked that the Sonics be forced to pay its legal fees if the city wins.

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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