E-mails: Sonics owners discussed move to Oklahoma City last April

SEATTLE -- E-mails obtained by Seattle city officials suggest owners of the Seattle SuperSonics were privately talking about moving the team to Oklahoma City last April, at the same time they were publicly saying they were still seeking a way to build a new arena and remain in the Pacific Northwest.

The e-mails, detailed in a report by The Seattle Times, were cited in a motion filed by city officials in U.S. District Court in New York. The city is trying to enforce a subpoena for NBA financial documents as it builds a case for a civil suit against the Sonics' owners in an attempt to hold the team to its lease at Key Arena.

In an e-mail exchange dated April 17, 2007 -- shortly after the Washington state legislature turned down a $500 million public financing package for a new arena -- co-owners Clay Bennett, Aubrey McClendon and Tom Ward discussed moving the team to Oklahoma City as soon as possible, according to the records obtained by the city.

"Is there any way to move here [Oklahoma City] for next season or are we doomed to have another lame duck season in Seattle?" Ward wrote in the e-mail.

Bennett replied: "I am a man possessed! Will do everything we can. Thanks for hanging with me boys, the game is getting started!"

"That's the spirit!! I am willing to help any way I can to watch ball here [in Oklahoma City] next year," Ward wrote back.

The NBA's board of governors is scheduled to vote next week on Bennett's application to relocate the Sonics to Oklahoma.

Seattle city attorney Tom Carr said the e-mails make it clear that Bennett's ownership group, which bought the team in 2006, never had any intention of keeping it in Seattle, despite Bennett's public statements that the group was committed to keeping the team there. Bennett had committed to working with city and state officials through October 2007 to keep the Sonics in Seattle.

"We all believed [the new group always meant to move]. We didn't know it. Now we know it," Carr said, according to The Times.

Reacting to the report Thursday on KING-TV in Seattle, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire said,
"I have been lied to. All of the people of the state of Washington have been lied to. I'm shocked and I'm very disappointed."

And former Sonics president and co-owner Wally Walker, who said he voted against the 2006 sale of the team to Bennett's group, told the Times the e-mails run counter to the "good faith" pledge Bennett made the team when he bought the Sonics from the local group that included Walker and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.

"For the people who voted for the deal, the good-faith, best-efforts promise was a significant factor in supporting the deal," Walker said, according to the report. "This is not what they signed up for."

In its motion, the city seeks to compel the NBA to provide documents related to the finances of each NBA team. It is also seeking documents relating to the league's involvement in requiring the Sonics to make a good-faith effort to stay in Seattle and its contention that the Sonics' lease at Key Arena is financially unworkable. The city said in the motion that it needs to see the documents to understand the NBA's reasons for supporting a move, as well as to defend its position in the court case against the Sonics.

Bennett's spokesman, Dan Mahoney, had no immediate comment Wednesday night, The Times reported. NBA spokesman Tim Frank said the league would have no comment, according to the report.

The team wants to be let out of its lease early so it can move to Oklahoma City, while Seattle wants to enforce the September 2010 expiration date. A trial has been scheduled for June 16.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman is scheduled to hear the trial. She declined through a spokeswoman to comment on the e-mail messages.

Pechman ruled in February that as part of the lawsuit's discovery process, the ownership group must give Seattle's lawyers copies of e-mail sent from or to all of its eight board members that could potentially be relevant to the case.

In its motion, the city also alleges that the team's ownership was not forthright with NBA commissioner David Stern after McClendon was quoted as saying the group always intended to move the team to Oklahoma City.

Last August, McClendon was quoted in an Oklahoma publication as saying, "We didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle; we hoped to come here."

At the time, Stern said there would be "a huge fine" if McClendon had been quoted accurately. The NBA later fined McClendon $250,000 for the comment.

In an e-mail dated Aug. 17 -- four months after the e-mail in which the team owners discussed an early departure -- Bennett told Stern, "I would never breach your trust. As absolutely remarkable as it may seem, Aubrey and I have NEVER discussed moving the Sonics to Oklahoma City, nor have I discussed it with ANY other member of our ownership group. I have been passionately committed to our process in Seattle, and have worked my [tail] off."

Yet on June 5, 2007, Sonics arena consultant Tim Romani e-mailed Bennett and asked that he talk to Oklahoma City manager Jim Couch before Romani was to "engage in earnest negotiations" with Couch.

Couch declined comment Thursday, citing the ongoing legal process and his pending deposition next week.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.