Friday, January 31, 2003

Commissioner sues Bengals, NFL

By Terry Kinney
The Associated Press

Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune sued the Bengals and the National Football League claiming the team violated its stadium lease by failing to be competitive.

Portune filed the lawsuit Thursday in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court as a private taxpayer, without backing from other commissioners.

The complaint, which also named the other 31 NFL franchises as defendants, alleges fraud, civil conspiracy, antitrust violations and breach of contract.

The suit contends that the Bengals coerced construction of a new 65,000-seat stadium by threatening to move to another city, then negotiated a sweetheart lease.

"Its terms are grossly one-sided in the Bengals' favor: the team owes nominal rent, receives virtually all stadium-related revenues, and pays essentially no construction, operations, maintenance or improvement costs," the suit alleges.

In return for the stadium, the Bengals promised to field a competitive team, Portune said. Cincinnati hasn't made the playoffs since 1990, and just finished the worst season in franchise history at 2-14.

Portune wants the Bengals to renegotiate their lease for the $458 million stadium, which opened in 2000. He also has asked the NFL to provide an $80 million loan to enable county taxpayers to pay off the stadium debt within the originally projected 20 years.

New projections show it will take at least 35 years to retire the stadium debt with revenues from a half-cent sales tax increase county voters approved in 1996, Portune said.

"The Bengals are confident the claims are without merit and will vigorously defend the action," the team said Thursday in a statement.

The league also criticized the suit.

"Mr. Portune is acting without the support of the county commissioners or the county prosecutor and, in our opinion, his approach is not constructive and will not succeed," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said.

Portune's lawyer, Robert Furnier, said the suit was filed because the Bengals and the league refused to meet with Portune or negotiate a new lease for Paul Brown Stadium.

"Commissioner Portune was forced to bring this litigation to preserve these claims for the citizens of Hamilton County," Furnier said. "In the weeks to come, commissioner Portune will seek the support of the Hamilton County Board of Commissioners to join the lawsuit.

"In the meantime, the commissioner will diligently pursue these claims, if need be, on his own."

In a letter this week to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Portune demanded that the Bengals agree to $124 million in lease changes along with the $80 million loan from the league.

The NFL has made loans available to eight other NFL cities for new stadiums, Portune said in his letter.

Portune, the only Democrat on the three-member county commission, was not a member when the sales tax surcharge was approved by voters or when the commission negotiated the stadium lease.

He was elected in 2000, defeating incumbent Republican Bob Bedinghaus, the point man and chief negotiator on the stadium project, who bore the brunt of recriminations over some $51 million in cost overruns.

Bedinghaus has since gone to work for a Cincinnati consulting firm and has been retained by the Bengals as a consultant on stadium and riverfront development issues.

County commissioners started legal action last year to try to recover about $45 million from contractors.

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