By Brenna R. Kelly
Enquirer staff writer
BURLINGTON - A judge could decide this week whether financial records that a part-owner of the Florence Freedom gave the city of Florence are public record.
Boone Circuit Judge Anthony Frohlich heard arguments in the case Tuesday, in which The Kentucky Enquirer is asking for the records to be released.
"I'll have a ruling for you in a couple of days," Frohlich said after the half-hour hearing.
Chuck Hildebrant, 45, a 20 percent owner of the Florence Freedom, gave personal financial records to Florence in order to get the city to lease 30 acres of city-owned land for the minor league team's stadium.
Last month, after a request from Hildebrant's attorney, Frohlich issued a restraining order preventing the city from releasing the records.
They had been requested by the Enquirer under the state's open records law.
The Enquirer then asked Frohlich to release the records.
The city required Hildebrant to provide the records because he and his wife, Connie, signed a personal financial guarantee that they had enough assets to cover the cost of the stadium and fulfill the terms of the lease.
Last month, the team's owners defaulted on the lease and the city claimed in a lawsuit that the Hildebrant financial records were false.
In court Tuesday, city attorney Hugh Skees told the judge that there is no precedent for this case.
"What the public needs to know is, was the city of Florence justified in allowing the lease to be signed based upon Mr. Hildebrant's personal guarantee?" Skees said.
"I believe that ... based on the fact that this entire situation came about based on the city of Florence's reliance on Mr. Hildebrant's private records, that the balancing test says disclosure should occur."
But Hildebrant's attorney, Stephen Wolnitzek, argued that the records are private and should not be released.
Wolnitzek said the records, which were given to the city in September 2003, do not become public just because the owners have defaulted on the lease and the city has claimed that the records are false.
"These documents were given to the city. If they weren't public then, nothing that happened subsequent to that makes them public," he said.
Wolnitzek also told the judge that the records may not reflect Hildebrant's true financial status because they are a year old.
"Things change in people's financial dealings," Wolnitzek said.
Last month, Hildebrant, of Morrow, was ordered by two Ohio judges to repay nearly $4.5 million in bank loans and is under investigation by federal authorities over the stadium construction financing.
Wolnitzek said that if the records are public, the Enquirer could have gotten them after the lease was signed.
"They are either private then and remain private or they were public then," he said.
Paul Alley, attorney for the Enquirer, said the records were public when they were submitted to Florence and the fact that team has defaulted on the lease and the city has sued only adds weight to that argument.
"The scale continues to pile up in favor of the public," Alley said.
The public has a right to question the city's judgment in entering into the lease with the baseball team's owners and in accepting Hildebrant's personal financial guarantee, he said.
"We can't go back and judge the actions of the city in entering into the baseball agreement without those records," Alley said.
In addition to leasing city land to the team for 30 years, the city also spent public money for the project, issuing $5.4 million in bonds to buy the land and planning to spend nearly $1 million to build parking lots.
"The public can't make informed judgments about the conduct of the city without those records," Alley said. "That, your honor, is why we are asking for disclosure so citizens of Florence and all of Northern Kentucky can judge for themselves whether Florence was a good steward of public funds."
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