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Follow the Sonics off and on the court with reporters Percy Allen and Jayda Evans.

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June 20, 2008 8:18 PM

Gorton should have withdrawn from case

Posted by Percy Allen

This one is easy. This day belongs to the Sonics. In a landslide.

And I don't need a law degree to know the Sonics attorneys made several intriguing points. They were so good, I'm beginning to wonder if District Court Judge Marsha Pechman should toss the case out of court based on the evidence presented Friday.

The Sonics got a lot of mileage from their "unclean hands" defense. They established a paper trail between former U.S. Senator Slade Gorton, who is the lead attorney for the city, and local investors intent on buying the Sonics.

Gorton has been up front about his passion to retain NBA basketball in Seattle, but that passion is undermining the city's case.

It's difficult to determine if Gorton's passion or his role for the city caused him to inflict pain on Sonics chairman Clay Bennett and his ownership group, the Professional Basketball Club. It's difficult to determine when Gorton was acting as the concerned citizen who loves the NBA or the city's attorney that's being paid $1 million.

It pains me to admit it, but Gorton should have withdrawn from the case early on. I think the city was negligent in not asking Gorton to withdraw from the case. And for the first time, I think the Sonics might lose what should have been a no-lose lawsuit.

We all know what Gorton has done for professional sports in this town. He's been amazing and every Mariners fan and Seahawks fans are in his debt for saving those teams. Next time you see Gorton at a game, buy the man a beer and a hot dog.

But this is different.

A cardinal rule in journalism for a reporter is you never want to be the focal point of the story. I think the same holds true for attorneys.

It's not a good sign when Paul Lawrence, the lead attorney in the city's case, is fielding questions about another attorney on the case.

I presume Lawrence and Gorton work in close proximity and I find it impossible to believe Lawrence didn't know Gorton was hatching a plan "bleed Bennett to force him to sell." Regardless of what you think about the Oklahoma City Raider (sorry JB I stole your line), the opposing lawyer shouldn't devise schemes in their off hours to force the defendant to lose millions.

That's just not ethical.

Under questioning, Seattle developer Matt Griffin all but admitted that he had a meeting with Gorton where they talked about forcing Bennett to sell the team.

The defense introduced several Gorton e-mails to former team executive and part owner Wally Walker, Safeco president Mike McGavick and Seattle real estate developer Matt Griffin about forcing Bennett to sell the Sonics.

Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis had to know about all of this. He had to know Gorton is a bulldog who wins tough fights. He had to know his bulldog would engage in this type of behavior.

As Walker said today: "I would do anything to keep basketball in Seattle."

Anything? And what about Gorton? Would he do anything? It appears so. It appears he already has.

This one is easy. Give this day to the Sonics.

The team's lead attorney Brad Keller slam dunked Griffin early and often.

And Sonics attorney Paul Taylor made Walker squirm so much on the witness stand, I thought the former team president was on trial for giving $35 million to Jim McIlvaine and driving George Karl away.

Despite repeated objections from Lawrence, Pechman allowed Taylor to introduce Exhibit 567, which may ultimately doom the city's case. The evidence is a PowerPoint presentation given by Gorton called: The Sonics Challenge: Why a Poisoned Well Affords a Unique Opportunity.

It's a 46-page detailed strategy to inflict economic hardship on Bennett. It's scary because it nearly worked. The plan had two critical shortcomings.

For starters, state lawmakers declined to authorize tax funds to help in the KeyArena renovation. And second, the plan became public.

I find it a tad bit ironic that while the city compiled reams of embarrassing e-mails from the Sonics owners to show they breached a "good faith best effort" promise, Gorton sent e-mails that are now being used against the city.

If that's not fitting, then I don't know what is.

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June 19, 2008 10:15 PM

Day 4 follies and fumbles

Posted by Percy Allen

Thank goodness for Alexie Sherman, who added a little humor to a trial in dire need of comic relief. The prize-winning author, poet and comedian was worth the price of admission. Not sure if helped the Sonics case, but who cares. He was thoughtful, passionate and thoroughly engaging.

In all honesty, I didn't know much about Alexie before today other than his column in The Stranger and his book "Smoke Signals," but he's certainly a colorful character with some interesting ideas.

Still, I thought it was strange the Seattle attorneys chose to put Alexie on the stand after economist Lon Hatamiya because the two witnesses told two different stories. Hatamiya said the Sonics impact on Seattle can be quantified using a specific set of qualifiers. He said the Sonics annually generates $187 million for the Seattle metro area.

Later in the morning, Alexie said you can't put a price on the fans feelings for their favorite NBA team.

Seattle attorney Paul Lawrence said the handful of economists and their mixed projections furthers the city's case that the Sonics are a unique tenant whose value isn't easily measured.

Now some comments on the lawyering from a layman's perspective. I've been told I have no clue about what to look for and that's probably right. But if anyone had seen Seattle attorney Jeffrey Johnson's cross exam Deborah Jay, they would come to the conclusion that Johnson struggled big time. He's just not smooth. Not like Lawrence, Brad Keller or Paul Taylor.

Again Johnson's choppy style won't decide the case, but it's sure fun to watch. Keller seems to take joy interrupting Johnson's flow with objections and almost every time Judge Marsha Pechman sustains.

She often helps Johnson with his objections and one time he asked for an objection during his cross examination. Very funny.

Also, I'm told by someone who was inside the 14th floor courtroom that it was Johnson who initiated a verbal spat with Keller and not the other way around as I reported on the trial blog. Most of the media watches the trial on closed-circuit TV on the 18th floor and it appeared as if Keller was the instigator because he walked towards the plaintiff's table and leaned over to talk with Lawrence.

I asked Lawrence about the exchange later in the day, but he declined to offer any details.

Still, it appears as if I was wrong and I apologize to Keller and everyone here.

Back to the wrap-up: Lawrence scored points against the Sonics' economist Brad Humphreys when he pointed out Humphreys findings were on the Seattle metro area and not specifically the city of Seattle.

Taylor was great early in the week when he eviscerated economist Andrew Zimbalist, but he was unable to discredit Hatamiya or refute his claims about the Sonics value. And it was smart of Keller not to try and beat up on Alexie and get the superfan off the stand as quickly as possible.

A pair of attorneys (Seattle's Michelle Jensen and Sonics' James Webb) made their debuts today, but didn't distinguish themselves.

My scorecard is tied because the city finally had a far superior day than the Sonics.

Tomorrow promises to be exciting because former Sonics President Wally Walker, Seattle developer Matt Griffin and City Councilmember Nick Licata are scheduled to testify in court.

The Sonics will rest their case tomorrow and Pechman sounds as if she's going to give the attorneys a homework assignment to occupy their time during the five-day break. After Friday, the trial will resume June 26. Pechman said she found case law and will ask both sides some questions.

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June 18, 2008 9:11 PM

Day 3 triumphs and defeats

Posted by Percy Allen

Compared to his counterparts, city attorney Jeffrey Johnson looks very young. His bio on the K&L Gates website says he graduated cum laude from Gonzaga University in 1990. So unless he sailed through school, he's probably about 40 years old.

His age isn't relevant at all, however, Johnson seems to be the least experienced of the attorneyes and at times it shows.

Still, he recovered from the opening day when he appeared to momentarily freeze after an objection and he was not allowed to introduce a letter from a sports bar owner into evidence.

A few courtroom observers said Johnson was too soft on Sonics CEO Danny Barth during his initial questioning. Johnson tried to establish the unique connection a city has with a basketball team by highlighting various charitable activities the Sonics are engaged in.

During one amusing clip, Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Kurt Thomas read the children's tale "The Eagles Who Thought They Were Chickens" to middle school kids. One attorney told me, the city needed to hammer the point that the unique relationship can't be qualified with a dollar amount and Johnson didn't do that.

Still, Johnson might have delivered the best exchange of the day during redirect. Let me set this up.

Sonics attorney Brad Keller allowed Barth to detail a series of setbacks that the team had endured during the 2007-08 season. He mentioned a loss of $27.6 million, plummeting TV ratings, the loss of 23 employees etc.

Barth said things have gotten so bad and the fan apathy is so high towards the Sonics that no one called the team to buy or renew tickets when the Sonics claimed the No. 4 pick in the lottery.

Barth went so far as to say that the team received calls when it drafted no-name Mouhamed Sene two years ago.

Here's the transcript from Johnson's redirect on this point.

Q: And now you're talking about tickets -- you were talking about you weren't getting phone calls for next year?
A Yes.
Q You're not selling tickets for next year?
A We are --
Q You haven't let any season ticket holder that wants to renew for next year?
A We are not actively out marketing. Didn't think it was prudent to go ahead and take people's money until we knew where we were going to be.
Q You're not accepting ticket sales -- I can't give you money right now to reserve tickets, can I?
A You cannot.

That's a slam dunk in my book, however, the city's attorneys didn't score enough of them.

Seattle's lead lawyer Paul Lawrence hammered away at owner Clay Bennett all morning and his use of the phrase "the man possessed" lost the powerful effect it had early in the trial.

Still, Lawrence kept to this talking points which are Bennett is a smart businessman who knew the risks before he bought the team.

It's amazing how Keller continues to confound Lawrence and Johnson with timely objections. If you ever get a subpeona from Keller, leave the country. He's that good. Same goes for Paul Taylor.

Still as one attorney who watched today's trial told me: "Having this case before a judge makes all the difference in the world becasue a judge will look at the facts and not be swayed by the theatrics of the lawyers."

The attorney told me he thinks the Sonics crew has presented better arguements, but there's no getting around the specific language in the lease that says the Sonics have to play at KeyArena for two more years.

I'm calling it a draw for today, which allows the Sonics to maintain their narrow edge.

For some strange reason, the city has not established that the lack of fan interest in the Sonics is due to the crummy team that took the court for 82 games last season. Former Seattle Center director Virginia Anderson talked about this, but the attorneys didn't use this arguement when questioning Bennett and Barth. Barth said the Sonics were 27th in average paid attendance and yet no one asked which teams were 28, 29 and 30. Without looking it up, I guarantee you those teams were lousy. K-I-S-S.

Some quick points, co-owner Aubrey McClendon will not testify in court, which is a wise move for the Sonics. Thursday may not be as exciting as the first three days because there's no one on the witness list that has the star power of Mayor Greg Nickels or Bennett.

Author Sherman Alexie is scheduled to appear in Thursday morning, however, the next interesting witness is probably former Sonics President Wally Walker. City Councilmember Nick Licata may also provide some sparks.

Remember it was Licata who told Sports Illustrated in Feb. 2007 the economic impact of the Sonics leaving would be "near zero."

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June 17, 2008 9:50 PM

Second day scorecard for the trial

Posted by Percy Allen

The city of Seatle recovered from Monday's miscues, but then it would have been difficult to repeat the opening day blunders.

This had to be a big day for the city and Seattle attorney Paul Lawrence had a fine showing. He didn't deliver a knockout during his questioning of Sonics owner Clay Bennett, however, he hammered home the city's key points, which are:

--- Bennett is a sophisticated investor.
--- Bennett read several reports about KeyArena and the Sonics' financial troubles before buying the team.
--- Bennett promised to honor all the committments of the team when he bought the team.

"The basic premise of the case is the lease and the basic premise of the case is what PBC understood when they signed the lease," Lawrence said during a short press conference after the trial adjourned. "And they are trying to say they should be able to get out because it's hard on them. But that was a risk they assumed when they had signed the lease and we asked that they be held to the lease which includes a specific performance provision."

Lawrence introduced the famous Sonics owners emails including Bennett's "I am a man possessed" message, however, the Seattle attorney played it relatively low key and didn't attack Bennett like many expected.

Still, Bennett contradicted himself when he tried to explain why he said he was a man possessed. His explaination simply was not believable because days after the email, he made plans to move the team.

During the trial, Lawrence asked: "So within a few days of being a man possessed to stay in Seattle, you contacted Mr. (Joel) Litvin of the NBA and started explaining to him why Oklahoma City is a good place for an NBA team; is that fair?"

Bennett replied: Yes.

Lawrence could have questioned Bennett all day, but he stopped after about 2 1/2 hours.

Bennett's attorney Brad Keller went to great lengths to detail the ownership group's effort to build an arena in Renton, which seemed a little strange. It was revealed that Bennett contacted Microsoft mogul Steve Ballmer and asked him for help with the Olympia lobbying efforts.

Keller, however, didn't undo the city's claims.

The Sonics attorneys appeared to score major points late in the day when Paul Taylor seemingly undermined the testimony of noted sports economist Andrew Zimbalist. Taylor skewered Zimbalist and accused him of plagerizing work that Zimbalist did in 2005 during a case involving the city of Anaheim and the Angels MLB team.

Taylor recounted a Kentucky case involving NASCAR in which the judge called Zimbalist a "hired gun" and said Zimbalist's approach "has not been tested and has not been subject to peer review and publication; there are no standards controlling it and there is no showing that it enjoys general acceptance within the scientific community."

The city of Seattle never objected during Taylor's line of questioning, which made it clear that they were unprepared. That was big mistake.

Even before cross-examination, Zimbalist didn't help the city. When he wasn't shouting into the microphone, he used big words and text book definitions that were difficult to understand. At one point, Judge Marsha Pechman asked him once to explain his meaning when he said "avidity."

Also, Seattle attorney Greg Narver often hurried his questions, which appeared to annoy Pechman.

If this were a jury trial, then Zimbalist's credibilty may have been damaged. However, Pechman will decide this case and she may not have been impressed by the exchange with Taylor.

It must also be noted that this blog simply scores points for sound arguements. I'm no lawyer or law professor so it's impossible for me to know with any degree of certainty what Pechman is thinking.

Still I'm a reasonalble, unbiased observer and it's my opinion that each side argued to a draw today because Lawrence didn't slam dunk Bennett and Zimbalist flubbed in the end.

My unofficial scorecard has the Sonics leading 3-2.

Finally, I think it's a curious move that the Sonics are considering bringing co-owner Aubrey McClendon to Seattle and having him testify in court.

It seems that would be a risky gamble considering McClendon has already demonstrated he can't keep a secret. You'll remember McClendon uttered the "We didn't buy them to keep them in Seattle" quote which cost him a $250,000 fine from the NBA.

Day 3 resumes Wednesday with Bennett on the stand.

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June 16, 2008 7:45 PM

First day winners and losers

Posted by Percy Allen

Sonics attorney Brad Keller scored a lot of points during his opening statement and against Mayor Greg Nickels, who often stammered and stuttered while answering.

Keller is a wordsmith and the Mayor is not, which put Nickels on the defensive early into Keller's cross examination.

The Mayor was not forthcoming with simple admissions. Several times, he declined to concede small points to Keller and when Keller showed evidence to support his claim, then Nickels looked silly.

During one exchange, Nickels refused to acknowledge that KeyArena was antiquated until Keller showed him a 2006 city task force report in which Nickels said the refurbished building was outdated and in need of renovations.

Keller produced some of the day's best lines in opening statements.

He said that while Clay Bennett's Professional Basketball Club was in Olympia lobbying for a new venue in Renton, the city of Seattle was thwarting that effort. "The landlord response was, 'You either play in my sandbox or drown in red ink.' "

Keller said former Sonics president Wally Walker, Slade Gorton and Microsoft mogul Steve Ballmer conspired in a "bleed them until they sell" strategy against Bennett. The Sonics lawyer then painted a picture in which it appeared as if the city was in on the strategy while questioning Nickels.

The K&L Gates attorneys, who represent the city, stumbled early and often.

Paul Lawrence was unspectacular in in opening arguments, Jeffrey Johnson momentarily froze when Judge Marsha Pechman upheld an objection and didn't allow him to introduce a piece of evidence and Pechman admonished Greg Narver several times for speaking too fast and not being clear with his questions. Narver was also unable to submit a 1995 video clip of KJR host Mitch Levy interviewing NBA Commissioner David Stern as evidence.

The miscues by the K&L Gates lawyers is alarming considering the city will pay in excess of $1.1 million for their service.

Former Seattle City director Virginia Anderson saved the day for the city. She held up well under cross examination by Paul Taylor. Anderson refused to be bullied and appeared to have a firm command of the facts. Often times, she refuted claims with solid evidence.

Taylor abruptly changed his line of questioning a few times, which only made him look confused and Anderson appeared stronger.

The day ended with former KeyArena manager Jyo Singh being cross examined.

For those keeping score: Sonics 2, city of Seattle 1.

The Sonics attorney are hammering at the claim that KeyArena is an outdated building in desperate need of repair and the city failed to make improvements. The city also failed in four attempts to lobby funds from state lawmakers and both sides are better off disolving a dysfunctional marriage. Oddly enough, the Sonics attorneys did not use the "unclean hands" reference, however, they're trying to establish an unethical connection between the mayor's office and the Baller group.

The Seattle lawyers are establishing that Bennett and his partners are smart businessmen who knew about the lease and the building's deficiencies when they bought the team two years ago. They arguements are simplier. They asked Anderson and Singh about lease provisions for a buyout and each said that no provisions exist.


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June 13, 2008 4:27 PM

Mayor Nickels will be the first to testify

Posted by Percy Allen

Mayor Greg Nickels is schedule to appear in court Monday morning in the case between the city of Seattle and the Sonics.

The Monday morning lineup includes: Nickels, former Seattle Center director Virgina Anderson, KeyArena manager Jyo Singh and Sonics co-owner and chairman Clay Bennett if time permits.

Nickels is listed as a witness for the plaintiff and the defendant.

In proceedings, the city will put up its witnesses first and the Sonics get the opportunity to cross-examine those witnesses.

The team also has a chance to put up its witnesses and they are subject to cross-examination. The City may or may not then put up rebuttal witnesses.

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June 12, 2008 8:37 PM

Pechman lays out the ground rules

Posted by Percy Allen

If you're planning to attend the trial between the city of Seattle and the Sonics, then be sure to get to the courthouse at 700 Stewart early. Only 44 seats are available to the public and they will be distributed through a lottery that begins at 7 a.m. each day.

The trial will take place in the 14th floor courtroom and begin each day at 9 a.m. There will be a morning and an afternoon session, including a morning and afternoon recess. There's also a 90-minute lunch that begins at noon.

The trial will consist of six days. It will span five days next week and conclude June 26. There will be no sessions on June 23-25.

A complete list of the do's and don'ts can be found at www.wawd.uscourts.gov. This link also includes significant documents filed in the case. This is somewhat old news, but the city's website went live on Thursday and I figured I'd pass along the info.

Some interesting points:

The court will be providing daily information about witnesses and exhibits scheduled for the following day.

Judge Marsha Pechman will not give any interviews or statements.

Once you're seated in the courtroom and the trial has started, you will not be able to leave the courtroom until the court breaks for recess. In addition, once court is in session, people will not be allowed to enter the courtroom.

All portable electronic devices (including cell phones, blackberries, etc.) must be TURNED OFF so that there are no electronic signals being broadcasted in or out of the courtroom.

You may not use your video camera, or use a cell phone to record or take pictures during the trial.

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June 11, 2008 11:09 AM

Sonics moved to Oklahoma in the D-League

Posted by Percy Allen

With just five days remaining before Monday's court trial between the city and the Sonics, maybe today's NBA D-League announcements will go unnoticed.

But I got a tip about this a few weeks ago and was never able to get any confirmation from anybody within the two leagues.

Anyway, since 2005 the Sonics were assigned to the Idaho Stampede along with the Portland Trail Blazers, which made sense because of the proximity of the Northwest teams.

Today, the league re-assigned the Sonics to the Tulsa 66ers in Oklahoma.

The league made note of several new developments in today's announcement, but did not highlight the change with the Sonics.

On the surface, the re-assignments makes no sense because the teams assigned to Idaho are the Blazers and the Toronto Raptors, which is about 2,000 miles away.

The Sonics will share the 66ers with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Clearly the NBA, which approved Clay Bennett's bid to move the Soncis to Oklahoma City, fully expects the Sonics will no longer play in Seattle.

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