Orioles, state hire power attorneys

D.C. lawyers to duel over team's demand for stadium changes

July 27, 2000|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

The Orioles have hired President Clinton's personal attorney to press a "parity" claim against the state, in which the team is seeking tens of millions of dollars in rent discounts and improvements to Camden Yards on the contention that the Ravens got a better deal.

David A. Kendall, who defended Clinton against impeachment, is co-counsel along with Baltimore-based attorney Alan M. Rifkin, who has represented the Orioles for several years.

"I'm looking forward to the case. It presents some very interesting issues of equity and parity," said Kendall, who has represented the president and Hillary Rodham Clinton since 1993, through the Whitewater scandal, Travelgate and impeachment hearings.

The baseball team is relying on a clause in its lease, written years before football returned to Baltimore, that guaranteed it "fairly comparable" terms in the event an NFL franchise moved here. The Orioles are seeking rent abatements, new skyboxes, interest-free loans and other compensation from its landlord, the Maryland Stadium Authority.

A panel of arbitrators was selected last week to decide the claim, which the Orioles raised shortly after the city's football franchise arrived in 1996. Under the lease, the panel's decision will be final and cannot be appealed to court. A date for the arbritration may be set during a conference call of the arbitrators on Aug. 10.

If the Orioles prevail, the team could see its profit and value soar at the expense of taxpayers. The team is already one of the most valuable in sports due to the appeal of Camden Yards and the cut-rate rent in the publicly owned facility. A recent report by Major League Baseball listed the Oriole's revenue as the games' third highest, behind the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians.

Rifkin said the team and its majority owner, attorney Peter Angelos, have a fiduciary responsibility to the team's investors, banks and fans to pursue its rights under the lease with the state. "I'm not certain whether Peter could avoid going forward," Rifkin said.

Money won in the case could find its way into fielding better players, to the benefit of fans, Rifkin said. "We'd love to find ways to put the best possible product on the field," Rifkin said.

The Orioles have baseball's third-highest payroll, approaching $84 million, but the team is in fourth place in the American League East Division.

The Stadium Authority, which built and owns the $500 million, twin-stadium Camden Yards complex, says the Orioles are owed nothing and that the team's lease is in many respects better than the Ravens'.

"We think if you put their side's numbers and our side's numbers together, we meet the definition of fairly comparable or that the Ravens lease is worse," said Alison Asti, general counsel for the Stadium Authority, who briefed its board yesterday.

The matter will be argued by some of the nation's top legal talent. Kendall, 56, a former Rhodes Scholar, has been working on the case for several months. He is a partner with the blue-chip Washington firm of Williams & Connolly. That was the firm of the late Edward Bennett Williams, a nationally known attorney who, as the owner of the Orioles, negotiated the parity clause out of concern the state would offer better terms to an NFL franchise to gain a replacement for the departed Colts. Williams died in 1988.

Kendall will be assisted by Brendan V. Sullivan, a senior partner at Williams & Connolly who gained national fame defending former White House aide Oliver North against charges arising from the Iran-Contra scandal.

The Stadium Authority, too, has added to its legal arsenal. It is being defended by George Beall, head of the Baltimore office of another powerhouse Washington firm, Hogan & Hartson. Beall, as the U.S. Attorney for Baltimore, led the investigation that resulted in the 1973 resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew, a former Maryland governor.

Working with Beall is Ralph S. Tyler, an attorney who is opposing Angelos in another matter: the dispute over legal fees claimed by Angelos for his work on behalf of Maryland in the national settlement with the tobacco industy. Tyler is a former state deputy attorney general.

Documents obtained by The Sun through the state's public records law, show the Orioles demands include:

Rent credits equal to $14 million, plus interest, which the team calculates is the value of concession equipment that the state bought at PSINet, but not Oriole Park - facts the state disputes.

The right to sell the name of Oriole Park to a corporate sponsor, something that might be worth $100 million over a long-term agreement. The Ravens paid the state $10 million for the naming rights to their stadium, and included them in a 20-year strategic partnership with PSINet that was valued at $105 million, including a joint internet venture.

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