Pursuing a level playing field

Stadiums: Financing of the Ravens' roost is central to a legal dispute between the Orioles and the state as the O's seek a deal they say will match the football team's

March 25, 2001|By Bill Atkinson and Jay Apperson | Bill Atkinson and Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

When Casper R. Taylor Jr. was attending a meeting in February 1996 on state police helicopters at Martin State Airport, he had more pressing issues on his mind.

Inside a modest office in a cavernous hangar in Middle River, the powerful speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates delivered an ultimatum to John A. Moag Jr., chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority.

Opposition in Annapolis was swelling against the $200 million football stadium that Moag had promised Arthur B. Modell to lure him and his Cleveland Browns to Baltimore three months earlier. Taylor dropped the bomb: Modell had to cough up $24 million.

The decision to demand the $24 million, born out of political necessity, is at the heart of a battle raging today between the Baltimore Orioles and their landlords, the stadium authority. Depending on the outcome of the high-stakes arbitration case, it could cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

Regardless of what transpires, the move of the Browns kicked off a series of political power plays and bookkeeping maneuvers, and the result hinges on how to interpret a "parity" agreement negotiated in late 1988 and the early 1990s by stadium authority officials and former Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams and then-team President Larry Lucchino. The Orioles say they want a deal to match the one offered the Ravens.

In addition, the way the deal with Modell was handled has raised serious questions:

Have Modell and his team met their $24 million obligation to the state?

Was the General Assembly misled by the stadium authority when it was assured that its conditions were fully met?

Did Modell buy the naming rights to the stadium - which he sold to PSINet Inc. for $105 million - or did he get them for free?

Is the state legally obligated to amend its contract with Peter G. Angelos, the principal owner of the Orioles, which could mean tens of millions of dollars to the baseball team, including the right to sell the Camden Yards name?

As the Orioles see it, the Ravens' repayment plan was an elaborate smoke screen designed to minimize additional costs to the football franchise.

"It was in the Maryland Stadium Authority's control whether to play a game of three-card monte, and it chose to do so," said Orioles general counsel Alan M. Rifkin.

The Orioles' arguments caught the arbitrators' attention.

Neil I. Levy, struggled to digest the arrangement late last year during the arbitration hearings. "When all of this is said and done and all the characterizations are gone," said Levy, "the bottom line is that the Ravens paid none of this money." Added Alan S. Anderson, "The Ravens didn't pay any of this money, and all that happens was that they took a less favorable rate on their concessions."

Some legislators say stadium authority officials went out of their way to give the football team a sweeter deal than is widely known.

"They said, `Get me a team at any cost,' and they did it any cost," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat.

"They can try and justify it as much as they want, and they can give new meaning to the term `fuzzy math,'" said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican and the House minority whip. "There was," he suspects, "a wink and a nod and a deal in the back room."

The stadium authority vigorously defends its actions and says there is an effort to confuse the facts.

"There has been an attempt to try and distort what occurred here for reasons that are not understandable to me and that are ultimately not my business or the stadium authority's business," said Ralph S. Tyler, an attorney representing the stadium authority. "But there is nothing about what was done here that's unusual, unconventional, and certainly there was nothing done that was wrong. The matter is fully documented, it was fully disclosed, it was fully known at the time to everyone and it is fully known today."

Making the plan palatable

Although the public, at least in metropolitan Baltimore, was ecstatic at the prospect of the National Football League's return to the city, those in the State House knew the timing of the deal with Modell could not have been worse.

While the rest of the country was enjoying an economic recovery, Maryland's job growth was an anemic 1.7 percent - a full percentage point behind the national average - bankruptcies were being filed at a record pace and people were seeing little growth in personal income. Out-of-state companies had snapped up prominent local companies, and others were in bankruptcy.

People were in no mood to finance a $200 million football stadium, not when jobs were scarce and there wasn't enough money for education, law enforcement and city services.

To make matters worse, Jack Kent Cooke, owner of the Washington Redskins, announced he would move his team to Landover. Although he vowed to finance his stadium, Cooke wanted $73 million for roads and other improvements.

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