Sacramento Kings basketball team owner Vivek Ranadive and city Mayor Kevin Johnson are expected to take the stand as star witnesses Tuesday in a Superior Court lawsuit challenging a half-billion-dollar 2014 arena deal between the city and team.
Attorneys for three Sacramento residents suing the city say they believe the mayor and others at City Hall secretly conveyed city assets to the Ranadive group to compensate that group for overpaying for the team in 2013 to keep it from moving to Seattle.
City officials have vehemently denied the allegation. Sacramento City Manager John Shirey, testifying in court Monday, said there was no secret deal and that he would never authorize any such arrangement.
Johnson acknowledged during an April deposition that the Ranadive group did ask the city if it could put more cash into the deal because the price they were expecting to pay for the team was high. But Johnson said he said no.
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“I was like, ‘Absolutely no way. It’s not going to happen,’” Johnson said. “That was just a nonstarter.”
The city agreed to spend $255 million in cash and land value for arena construction and give the Kings the OK to build a hotel next door, erect six billboards alongside city freeways and operate several thousand city-owned parking spots in the Downtown Plaza area.
The city listed those assets in public documents. Plaintiffs allege city officials made a point, however, of not listing dollar values for those deal elements, even though documents show the potential value to the team was discussed during talks between the two sides. They cited, as an example, an email from the mayor to a member of the Kings’ investor group during negotiations, noting: “Above and beyond (the $255 million), we’re offering significant value in the form of parking, signage and entitlements.”
In court Monday, plaintiffs’ attorneys Jeffrey Anderson and Patrick Soluri also continued their efforts to build a case that the city failed to protect the public interest by allowing Jeffrey Dorso – a member of the Think BIG arena advocacy group created by the mayor – to review city documents and participate in strategic discussions during early negotiations with the Kings investor group.
Dorso, an attorney, was later hired by the Kings before the deal was finished. When he joined the basketball team’s side of the table in final negotiations with the city, he brought knowledge of the city’s thinking to the other side, Anderson argued.
The basketball team also hired Kunal Merchant, another Think BIG member who provided input to the city during early efforts to save the team, even though he was not a city employee. Merchant formerly had been the mayor’s chief of staff.
Assistant City Attorney Matt Ruyak dismissed that argument as an example of Anderson and Soluri stretching to find something wrong with the deal.
“These guys are throwing whatever they can out there,” Ruyak said. “They are looking for a bogeyman here.”
The trial, in its second week, is expected to continue at least through the end of the week. The Kings arena is under construction and expected to open in October 2016. The city will own the arena, and the Kings will control operations and pay rent.