Thursday, June 26, 2008
Judge to make ruling on Sonics' lease trial next Wednesday
SEATTLE -- The Seattle SuperSonics rested their case to move to Oklahoma City atop a comical drawing of a brain.
Sonics lawyer Brad Keller enlivened closing arguments Thursday to the trial over whether the Sonics will stay for the final two years of their lease in KeyArena or move. He asked how former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton could have been involved in a plan to inflict financial harm on Sonics owner Clay Bennett and force him to sell the team to local investors without telling Seattle's top leaders.
City officials hired Gorton to lead their effort to keep Seattle's oldest professional sports team in town.
Amid chuckles inside an otherwise tense courtroom, Keller then displayed an electronic drawing of a human silhouette with a brain inside the skull. The left side of the brain, in green, was labeled "City's litigation lawyers" and the blue, right side was labeled "Griffin Group's lawyers." The so-called Griffin Group hatched the plan to force Bennett to sell the team.
"Are we to assume the left side wasn't talking to the right side?" an incredulous Keller said. "That defies logic. That defies common sense."
Judge Marsha Pechman smiled under her hands as she viewed the brain drawing on a monitor.
At the close of the six-day trial -- and about 90 minutes before the Sonics selected UCLA guard Russell Westbrook fourth in the NBA draft on this peculiar day -- Pechman said she will post a written decision Wednesday afternoon.
Evidence presented last week showed a document titled "The Sonics Challenge, Why a Poisoned Well Affords a Unique Opportunity," was carried by Gorton to a meeting at the home of former Sonics president Wally Walker last September. Also present were former Safeco Corp. CEO Mike McGavick and Microsoft Corp. chief executive Steve Ballmer.
At the time of the meeting, Gorton had been hired as Seattle's lead counsel, Walker had been retained as a consultant, and Ballmer was considered a potential buyer for the team.
The evidence was the Sonics' strike back after months of public ridicule over damning e-mails between Bennett and his partners that showed they were eager to move the team to Oklahoma soon after they bought it in 2006.
The Sonics contend the city had to have been aware of Gorton's "Machiavellian plan," and thus should not be entitled to the specific performance of the team playing in KeyArena into 2010.
The team is accusing Seattle officials of having "unclean hands" from inappropriately trying to drain the finances of team owners and want Pechman to ignore the city's claim the team must honor a clause of specific performance in its lease to play in the NBA's smallest venue through the 2009-10 season.
"Last week, I said evidence would show the marriage was broken," Keller said of the relationship between the Sonics and its home city of 41 years. "I'm sad to say the evidence showed more than that. It showed scheming and defrauding of a business."
Deputy mayor Tim Ceis said in his pretrial deposition that he never saw the "poisoned well" documents. Pechman denied the city's request to allow Ceis to testify in open court Thursday, saying that he and the office of mayor Greg Nickels had no direct knowledge of the plan to financially drain Bennett.
Seattle lawyer Paul Lawrence said in his closing argument that Gorton was developing a "carve out" plan, "and was not acting on the direction of the city."
The city is citing the rarely enforced legal principle of "specific performance," which is in the Sonics' lease, to assert the team should stay in Seattle for two more seasons. The Sonics think a more customary buyout covering rent payments and other costs related to the arena deal for two years -- a sum of about $10 million -- should free them to move to Bennett's hometown.
"Money compensation is the currency of our judicial system," Keller argued.
Throughout the trial, the city tried to show the Sonics have an intangible values such as civic pride and goodwill to Seattle that cannot be quantified or compensated by a lease buyout.
"We believe we have shown we have a lease with clear and certain terms, with a provision for special performance," said Lawrence, who was wearing a green-and-gold striped tie to match the Sonics' colors. "With that, the Sonics are a unique tenant and on that basis alone should require specific performance."