Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Bengals fail to slow lawsuit


Commissioners won't seek 2nd opinion

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Cincinnati Bengals and Hamilton County prosecutors urged county leaders Monday to get an independent legal opinion before joining a federal lawsuit against the team.

"Before you go and embroil the community in a huge fight, you owe it to the community to take that step," Bengals attorney Stuart Dornette said.

The two county commissioners who voted last week to sue the Bengals and the National Football League over the construction of Paul Brown Stadium dismissed the suggestion as a delaying tactic.

U.S. District Judge S. Arthur Spiegel provided ample legal support for the case, they said, in his February opinion allowing the lawsuit to go forward with Groesbeck resident Carrie Davis as plaintiff.

"What could be more authoritative than the opinion of a federal judge?" Commissioner Phil Heimlich said.

The Bengals said the county owes it to taxpayers and the team to study the merits of the antitrust allegations. County taxpayers funded the stadium in 1996 with a sales tax increase. The stadium opened in 2000.

"Qualified legal counsel could offer an opinion in a short time - 60 to 90 days - as to the strength of the county's claims," Troy Blackburn, the Bengals' director of business development, said in a letter Monday to the county.

The Davis suit accuses the Bengals and the NFL of illegally using a pro football monopoly to pressure Hamilton County into building a $450 million stadium project. The lawsuit seeks $200 million in damages.

Waiting for another review could jeopardize the case, Commissioner Todd Portune said, because Davis' ability to sue as a taxpayer on the county's behalf is being appealed by the team.

Portune and Heimlich voted to join the year-old suit Wednesday, but the court papers have not been filed.

Assistant County Prosecutor Carl Stich joined Blackburn on Monday in calling for further review of the county's case.

"We have never taken the position that it should just be ignored," Stich said. "It has always been our opinion that it should be carefully studied before jumping into the fray."

The commissioners bypassed the prosecutor, their official legal counsel, in making the decision to join the case.

Portune and Heimlich, lawyers themselves, said they got guidance from local attorney Bill Markovits, who recommended joining the Davis lawsuit. Markovits has worked in antitrust law at the U.S. Department of Justice and the Cincinnati law firm of Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP.

Because county prosecutors helped negotiate the stadium lease, they could be called as witnesses.

"It's logical that we would look at all people involved with the deal, and that may include people in the prosecutor's office," said Stanley Chesley, the lawyer commissioners hired last week to handle the case for them.

Both sides say they are open to a settlement, but no negotiations have been held and no offers made.

"I don't think we have to go all the way to trial, but if that's what they want to do, we can do it," said Chesley.

Portune originally brought the lawsuit as a taxpayer. Davis replaced him after the prosecutor's office and Ohio Ethics Commission said Portune's involvement precluded him from voting on Bengals-related matters.

"I would like the county and the team to renegotiate a lease on terms that are fair to both taxpayers and the team," Davis said.

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E-mail candrews@enquirer.com




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