Fan wins stadium #039;extortion#039; ruling

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 10, 2004

CINCINNATI - A federal judge ruled Monday that a taxpayer can pursue a lawsuit alleging that the NFL has illegally used its clout to ''extort'' new stadiums from cities.

U.S. District Judge S. Arthur Spiegel rejected the league's arguments that there was no legal standing for the case, which is based on how the Cincinnati Bengals got their new stadium.

Lawyers for taxpayer Carrie Davis now can try to get financial records and other private information from the league as they prepare for trial, something the NFL has strongly resisted in previous antitrust cases.

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''Our attorneys have not had an opportunity to fully study the court's decision,'' NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. ''The case is in its very early stages, and we have every confidence that we will ultimately prevail.''

Bengals spokesman Jack Brennan said the team had no comment.

The lawsuit originally was filed by Hamilton County commissioner Todd Portune, who has feuded with the Bengals over financing and management of Paul Brown Stadium. The $458 million stadium, which opened in 2000, was built in part with money from a county sales tax hike.

A companion lawsuit filed in state courts was thrown out. Spiegel decided there were federal issues worthy of a trial.

Portune said the judge's ruling opens the way for lawyers to get detailed financial information from the league through the discovery process leading to trial. No trial date has been set.

''That's the kind of stuff they absolutely don't want to get out and have never been willing to release, but now will have to,'' Portune said. ''I think it's great news for the county and for county taxpayers. There was a very strong effort by the Bengals and the NFL to keep these cases bottled up without ever getting out of the box and to paint them as frivolous.''

Residents were angry that overruns greatly inflated the cost of the stadium, and that the Bengals continued to lose after they moved in for the 2000 season. The Bengals haven't had a winning season since 1990, compiling the NFL's worst record over the last 13 years.

Team owner Mike Brown hired an outsider as head coach after a 2-14 finish in 2002, the worst in franchise history. Marvin Lewis got more control than his coaching predecessors and kept the team in contention until the final game of an 8-8 season.

Davis, a community activist, agreed to take Portune's place as plaintiff in the case after conflict of interest questions were raised. The league claimed she couldn't pursue the lawsuit, but Spiegel sided with Davis in an 81-page ruling.

Spiegel also agreed that Davis can pursue her claims that the NFL violated federal antitrust provisions by using its monopoly to ''extort'' new stadiums and highly favorable lease terms from communities. Brown had threatened to move the team from Cincinnati if a stadium tax proposal was voted down in the 1990s.

''The bottom line is the NFL lied not just to Hamilton County residents, but to numerous communities across the country to make taxpayers fund a private enterprise,'' Davis said in an interview Monday. ''They gave us wrong information to twist our arms into paying for a stadium.''

Spiegel is known as the judge who sentenced Pete Rose to jail for tax violations in 1989, shortly after the Reds manager accepted a liftime ban from baseball for gambling.