Sunday, March 14, 2004

Bengals lawsuit is wrong play


The vote this week by two Hamilton County Commissioners to join a federal antitrust lawsuit against the Bengals and the National Football League had more to do with alarm over stadium finances than zeal to win in court.

Both Democrat Todd Portune and Republican Phil Heimlich say they would be happy to get taxpayer relief from the Bengals' 1997 lease short of a trial. Bengals officials also insist litigation isn't something they welcome. Yet the commissioners' vote Wednesday authorized the county to hire Cincinnati attorney Stan Chesley to recover as much as $200 million in damages from the Bengals and the league.

If the suit moves forward, the Bengals would undoubtedly countersue. This community doesn't need years of ugly litigation with a major tenant/attraction when we are trying to develop the central riverfront. Both sides should seek relief out of court.

The county's deal with the Bengals was generous, but it's not the Bengals' fault that stadium sales tax revenues have been falling short of yearly growth projections. And it wasn't the Bengals' fault that the $450 million stadium complex was moved farther west than originally considered, adding $70 million in costs from buying private land. It wasn't the Bengals' fault that stadium construction cost overruns added $50 million.

It was the Bengals fault that citizen sentiment turned sour over their on-field performance in many of the years since the stadium opened. But football calls and government decisions are separate issues.

Longtime commissioner John Dowlin left Wednesday's session minutes before the vote. Neither Portune nor Heimlich were commissioners when the county signed the Bengals deal. Portune rode into office in 2000 by blaming then-Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus for the stadium costs, and Portune filed the original antitrust lawsuits in state and federal courts.

What drew Heimlich off the sidelines was U.S. District Judge Arthur Spiegel's Feb. 9 decision allowing the plaintiffs to pursue antitrust claims under federal law. Spiegel did not rule on the merits of the claims.

Portune and Heimlich say the stadium lease was "one-sided," on grounds the county was forced by NFL monopoly powers into making huge concessions to keep the team here. Part of the lawsuit strategy is to use the discovery process to force NFL team owners to open their financial books, which they fiercely resist.

Portune says the NFL has made $640 million in loans to eight NFL cities for stadiums, but refused Cincinnati. "A deal that doesn't work for both sides isn't a good deal," he says.

"There were a lot of bad deals, but we got the worst of them," Heimlich says.

Bengals business development director Troy Blackburn denies it was "one-sided." He argues that the county was represented by high-power Chicago attorneys; the stadium itself cost only $340 million; and the lease, though not perfect, should be judged as a total package. NFL officials say Hamilton County voters and leaders could have spent the money on other sports or for other purposes.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the lease "voidable at Hamilton County's discretion." Blackburn says if the lease were voided, the Bengals would be free to pursue a move to another city. Portune and Heimlich don't believe a judge would let the Bengals break their agreement to stay here. But the bottom line is that voters long ago decided they wanted to keep professional football in Cincinnati. Expensive as it is, having the team here is still better than the alternative.

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