Newly revealed e-mails could cause headaches for Sonics owner

SEATTLE -- More e-mails involving SuperSonics owner Clay Bennett have been revealed that could slow or even stop the team's move from Seattle to Oklahoma City, a move the NBA overwhelmingly approved last week.

A filing by the city of Seattle this week in federal court in New York includes e-mails to and from Bennett that show the NBA was concerned last summer that Sonics owners may be breaching their contractual promise of good-faith efforts to find a new arena in Seattle.

In court documents provided Thursday by attorneys representing the city, Bennett stated in an e-mail to Sonics co-owner Aubrey McClendon last Aug. 13 that the NBA was looking into issues "relative to certain documents that we signed at closing that may have been breached."

Bennett wrote that president of league and basketball operations Joel Litvin was looking into the possible breach.

Earlier that day, Bennett had written an e-mail to McClendon referring to the fallout from McClendon's comments to an Oklahoma business publication that "we didn't buy the team to keep it in Seattle, we hoped to come here."

"Yes sir we get killed on this one," Bennett wrote to McClendon. "I don't mind the PR ugliness [pretty used to it], but I am concerned from a legal standpoint that your statement could perhaps undermine our basic premise of 'good faith best efforts.'"

NBA commissioner David Stern fined McClendon $250,000 for his comment. The city is citing it as evidence Sonics owners lied to Seattle when asserting they weren't trying to move the team.

The e-mails are part of the city's recent filings in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, where Seattle is attempting to compel the NBA to provide financial records for all of its teams. The city is also trying to force Stern to testify as part of Seattle's dispute with the Professional Basketball Club, the Sonics' ownership entity, over the KeyArena lease.

A week before NBA owners voted 28-2 to approve the team's move to Oklahoma, the city released e-mails that appeared to show Bennett and his Sonics co-owners were eagerly anticipating moving the team from Seattle to Oklahoma City almost as soon as they bought the team in July 2006 for $300 million from a Seattle-area group led by Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz.

In one from April 2007, Bennett stated, "I am a man possessed! Will do everything we can," in response to co-owner Tom Ward asking if they were in for another "lame duck season" in Seattle.

Last week, immediately after the NBA approved the move, Bennett said he was referring to how possessed he was to find a home for the team in Seattle.

After the e-mails became public, Schultz filed suit against Bennett for allegedly violating the good-faith agreement.

The Sonics provided the e-mails to comply with a ruling by federal judge Marsha Pechman in Seattle. She ruled such messages between the co-owners were pertinent for the discovery phase of the June trial between the city and the Sonics over the KeyArena lease.

Bennett argues he is contractually allowed to write a check to buy out the lease and thus move his team to Oklahoma City for next season.

The city asserts the lease requires the team to play in KeyArena through the 2009-10 season. Seattle wants to keep the Sonics in town for those two years to buy time for a group led by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer or some other local buyer to find an arena solution and keep the team in the region for the long term.

The trial is scheduled to begin June 16 in federal court in Seattle.

In a motion Bennett filed last week in Seattle, the owner claimed the trial "has nothing to do with the last two years of the lease. Instead, the city is trying to exploit its landlord status to force the PBC to sell the team ... to drive up costs for the PBC ... to try to force PBC to sell."

The city has already rejected Bennett's offer of $26 million to settle. Last week, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels repeatedly refused to answer if there was a price at which the city would consider settling with Bennett. The mayor instead reiterated the city intends for the Sonics to remain in Seattle for the long term.

Last April, Bennett told a meeting of the Seattle Convention and Visitors Board that Las Vegas was a possible relocation alternative. In an e-mail to Stern dated April 28, 2007, Bennett regretted "my clumsy volley" but wrote that the "threat of Las Vegas has moved the needle" on what he saw as Seattle's indifference toward the Sonics' situation.

"Leadership in the market has never valued the threat of moving to Oklahoma City," Bennett wrote to Stern. "They don't even know where it is."