CINCINNATI -- A judge on Thursday dismissed Hamilton
County's federal antitrust lawsuit against the Cincinnati Bengals
and the National Football League because the suit was not filed
within the four-year statute of limitations.
U.S. District Judge S. Arthur Spiegel threw out the suit without
getting to the merits of the county's argument that the Bengals
misled taxpayers and officials by contending they needed a new
stadium to be profitable and might move if they didn't get one.
Hamilton County taxpayers in 1996 approved a one-half-cent sales
tax increase to finance the $450 million Paul Brown Stadium.
Commissioners signed a lease with the Bengals the following year.
The antitrust lawsuit was not filed until 2003, three years
after the Bengals began using the stadium.
"To be sure, the lease that Hamilton County enjoys with the
Bengals is highly favorable -- perhaps egregiously so -- to the
Bengals," Spiegel wrote.
He said prior members of the board were aware of allegations
that league and its teams wielded unlawful antitrust power to
obtain favorable leases, but by not filing suit sooner the chance
"was lost to the passage of time."
"We are pleased that Judge Spiegel took the time to thoroughly
analyze the case and conclude that the facts were on our side,"
Bengals owner Mike Brown said in a statement released by the team.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league believes Spiegel's
opinion demonstrates there was no basis for the county's claims.
Commissioner Todd Portune said he favored discussing all options
with attorneys, including an appeal, filing a lawsuit in state
court or seeking to reopen negotiations with the Bengals.
It was Portune who originally filed suit against the Bengals as
an individual taxpayer. When conflict-of-interest questions arose
regarding his position as a commissioner, community activist Carrie
Davis took his place as lead plaintiff.
Eventually, county commissioners took over the suit.
Portune said Thursday that the Bengals were largely to blame for
the county facing a deficit of $191 million.
In February 2004, Spiegel rejected the NFL's motion to dismiss
the case, ruling that Davis could pursue her claims that the NFL
violated federal antitrust provisions by using its monopoly to
"extort" new stadiums and highly favorable lease terms.
In his ruling Thursday, Spiegel explained why he did not rule at
that time that the statute of limitations had expired. He said a
new standard was applied when the county commission took over the
suit, based not on what an outsider like Davis could know about
negotiations but what commissioners knew or should have known.
Spiegel noted that county officials knew all along that the
Bengals were profitable, although the lawsuit alleged that the
statute of limitations started not in 1997 but in May 2001 when
commissioners got a clearer image of profits based on information
in a lawsuit between the league and Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis.