Arena lawsuit: Deposition of key officials nears go-ahead

Opponents of the push for a heavily subsidized downtown Sacramento basketball arena are closer to forcing key city insiders to tell what they know about how much taxpayers actually will have to pay for the project.

Last week, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Eugene Balonon issued a tentative ruling in the lawsuit targeting the arena deal orchestrated by Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA star. It supported petitioners’ requests that they be allowed to depose Sacramento Councilman Kevin McCarty and Sacramento Economic Development Director Jim Rhinehart about undisclosed dealings between city officials and the new Kings ownership group to help it buy the team.

The Sacramento Investor Group, led by tech entrepreneur Vivek Ranadive, purchased Sacramento’s NBA franchise from the Maloof family in May.

Arena deal: Many key issues remain murky

The arena deal has prompted questions over the lack of public debate about key details, dubious financial numbers from the city and the public subsidy the project requires. Also, last-minute legislation by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, would let the arena’s construction proceed without a credible environmental impact review.

Plaintiffs Issac Gonzalez, James Cathcart and Julian Camacho are members of Voters for a Fair Arena Deal. They hope to put the arena subsidy issue on the ballot in Sacramento.

Defendants, who include Johnson, City Manager John Shirey, Deputy City Manager John Dangberg and other city officials, have sought to keep the deal behind closed doors and off the ballot.

The lawsuit accuses city officials of making a secret deal to provide an extra $80 million of public money to help the investors’ group beef up its offer against a well-funded Seattle group that wanted to buy the Kings and move them to Seattle, which lost its NBA team to Oklahoma City in 2008. Plaintiffs’ attorney Patrick Soluri said city officials have committed fraud because they have not fully informed the City Council and the public about details of the deal.

The city subsidy, according to the lawsuit, is actually $338 million — not the $258 million the city claims.

In response, the defendants insist the information the petitioners seek is “undiscoverable, privileged information” and contend there was no secret deal. Defendants’ attorney Dawn McIntosh said in in a Thursday court hearing there is not even any formal agreement in place about building the arena in downtown Sacramento. McIntosh said the lawsuit was “a waste of everyone’s time.”

However, the City Council voted Tuesday of last week to begin eminent domain proceedings to acquire the property necessary in the development of the new sports arena.

The lawsuit’s plaintiffs want to depose McCarty and Rhinehart because they believe the city officials have evidence about the city’s undisclosed subsidies. While Judge Balonon indicated in his tentative ruling last week that he favored authorizing a deposition of McCarty and Rhinehart, he also said he would issue his final decision this week.

Councilman McCarty opposes the city arena deal, and thus far, has not responded to deposition requests. I contacted McCarty several times for previous stories about the arena deal, but he did not return phone calls or emails.

Stall tactics until the deal is done

Deposition notices were sent to city officials in September. But according to Soluri, the mayor and city officials have engaged in various avoidance tactics, including filing numerous objections to deposition notices, rolling demurrers, and refusing to comply with a court order directing them to reschedule a further hearing. Soluri said these were stall tactics was designed solely to delay the inevitable discovery until after the city’s expected formal approval of the arena in April.

Those behind the lawsuit are not the only ones who think that Mayor Johnson and other city officials aren’t being honest about the real size of the public subsidy. Public policy watchdog Eye on Sacramento says that when all of the publicly owned assets being thrown into the deal are accounted for, the public’s contribution is actually $375 million — far higher than the city’s $258 million claim.

The city also agreed to give the arena’s private development group the city’s empty 100-acre plot next to Sleep Train Arena in North Natomas and six other city properties, five of them adjacent to or near the downtown arena site. City officials are also giving away the city’s parking lot at the site, and the revenue from parking meters, after claiming the parking lots have no value.

Beyond the legal challenge to the city’s deal, there is also a ballot initiative petition to require a public vote on any public subsidy for a professional sports franchise.  The petition signatures are currently being counted.

However, it appears Mayor Johnson and the City Council will attempt to moot the result of that vote by pushing up their approvals of the arena prior to the June vote that would thereafter require voter approval.  Approval of the deal and related bond sales were previously scheduled for summer or fall 2014.

Craig Powell, president of Eye on Sacramento, calls this “stealing the election.”

The files on the arena lawsuit are available on the Sacramento Superior Court website, case no. 34-2013-80001489.

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