DeFede

A Little Friendly Persuasion

A subpoena can be a marvelous thing. Just ask Tony Ridder. For weeks the Knight-Ridder chairman refused to release documents in his possession regarding a proposed new arena for the Miami Heat. He told reporters, including those at his own newspaper, the Miami Herald, that he was beyond the reach of the state's public records law, that he was free to conduct the business of government in secret and without all that pesky press scrutiny that normally accompanies the commitment of more than $200 million of public money.

Now, Florida's public records law seems fairly straightforward. It states that in addition to elected officials and government employees, the law also applies to any "person . . . acting on behalf of any public agency."

For the past three months, Ridder has been acting on behalf of three public agencies -- the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority (MSEA), the Miami City Commission, and the Dade County Commission. Several times these groups have formally voted to make Ridder their representative in negotiations with the Miami Heat. On March 29, Ridder even signed a letter of intent with Miami Heat officials to keep the team downtown. Just below his signature are these words: "On behalf of Dade County, the City of Miami, and MSEA." Yet somehow Ridder still thought himself above the law.

On April 5, when New Times first asked that Ridder open his files, he brushed aside the request, saying that in addition to being exempt from the law, he really didn't have anything more to share. "Why don't I just tell you everything that I've got in my files," he offered. He said he had the March 29 letter of intent, which he signed along with Heat representatives, and a March 21 letter, sent to him by Heat officials, that outlined some of the preliminary terms of the proposed arena deal. Both of those letters he made public in early April. He also said he had a March 18 letter from the Heat, which he wasn't willing to make public. Those three letters were all he had, and New Times had already seen two of them, he explained.

In the course of our reporting a series of articles on the arena ("Micky Arison Is a Greedy Corporate Pig"), it became apparent that Ridder's assertions didn't make much sense, regarding both his legal status and the number of documents he had in his possession.

So after submitting a formal public records request and giving him one more opportunity to turn over any arena material, New Times filed a lawsuit against him on Friday, May 10. On Wednesday, May 15, Ridder was slapped with a subpoena and ordered to appear before Dade Circuit Court Judge Robert Kaye to explain why he shouldn't be required to turn over his files on the arena project. Rather than go before the judge, Ridder quickly opted to make some of the sought-after material public. Yes, a subpoena can be a marvelous thing.

Suddenly hundreds of pages of material appeared, not just the March 18 letter that supposedly sat alone in his files. The newsworthiness of the documents Ridder had been hiding was confirmed this past Saturday, when the Miami Herald ran three stories based on them. (And that raises an interesting question: Why wasn't "the foremost daily newspaper of Florida" willing to fight for the release of Ridder's files? Maybe the paper's brain trust was too busy thinking up that catchy new slogan.)

Of particular interest was a May 3 memo from Alvah Chapman to Ridder, in which the former Knight-Ridder chairman tells the current Knight-Ridder chairman about a meeting he just had with County Commissioner Alex Penelas, a mayoral candidate who has been the most outspoken critic of the arena proposal.

"The bottom line is that he will continue to be 'against the arena' but will not try to kill the project and will not make it the only plank in his campaign," Chapman wrote. "He plans to put the major emphasis on the insufficiency of the current arena to serve our community, and will take issue with Xavier Suarez on that. He said he will 'tone down' his campaign in opposition and will talk about alternative financing that might provide a better deal for taxpayers."

According to Chapman, Penelas gave assurances that "he will not assist Dan Paul's referendum campaign," a reference to the efforts of Paul, an attorney and civic activist, to have the arena issue placed on the ballot this fall for voter approval. Penelas also pledged, according to Chapman, that he "will not load the county commission meeting . . . with 'anti-arena' supporters."

There was also a memo from political consultant Julio Rebull, Jr., that described a proposal to mount a $300,000 advertising campaign to persuade the public that it is a good idea to spend more than $200 million to build an arena for a billionaire on waterfront land the City of Miami had once promised to turn into a public park. Particularly insidious was the suggestion that the Heat should capitalize on its work with children in order to garner support for the arena. Wrote Rebull: "The advertising effort would be centered around high school coaches, little league coaches, athletic directors, and others talking about the important role the Miami Heat have played in providing leadership with their students, not only through basketball clinics but also by spending time with kids talking about discipline, commitment, and other attributes."

Now, I'm just a lowly reporter; I don't control any billion-dollar corporations like Micky Arison or Ridder, but it seems that if Ridder didn't conduct all his meetings in secret, and if he didn't lie to reporters, and if he didn't wait until he had been sued and subpoenaed before turning over public documents, and perhaps if Arison hadn't been so damn crude in his efforts to extort from the city and the county a new arena just eight years after the current one opened, and perhaps if city and county officials had actually tried to solicit public participation at some point during this process rather than ramming it down people's throats, then maybe, just maybe the public would be more inclined to accept this deal, and Rebull and Ridder could instead spend their time trading memos on ways to raise $300,000 to support the county's library or parks systems.

It's not so much the Heat, it's the stupidity that seems to bother people in South Florida.

One of the Herald's stories on Saturday also noted a disturbing document in Ridder's stash -- a March 28 letter of intent with the basketball team. One day before the City of Miami, Dade County, and MSEA met separately in emergency sessions to approve the funding plan for a new arena, Heat attorney Eric Woolworth sent Ridder an eight-page letter virtually identical to the one Ridder would sign the next day. Yet Ridder never shared this missive with city or county commissioners before they voted.

Apparently Ridder didn't want to bother commissioners with too many niggling details, such as the fact that commissioners were giving up naming rights to the facility and were obligating themselves to pay for a traffic study that would guarantee that the Heat's VIP ticketholders would be able to get in and out of downtown as quickly as possible. Because if commissioners knew, for instance, that they were also waiving their ability to levy any new taxes directly against the arena, or that they would be responsible for subsidizing the Heat's losses if the new arena wasn't built on time, or that they were on the hook for all environmental clean-up costs, then maybe commissioners wouldn't have been so quick to approve the deal.

Which may get us closer to the reason Ridder had originally been so reluctant to release that March 18 letter from the Heat. The two-page letter asks Ridder to provide the Heat with "a written description of the FEC site in regard to DRIs [impact reports], environmental assessments, zoning, etc., and a proposal for how, both politically and mechanically, to get the site approved for construction of an arena in the shortest amount of time."

Ridder is supposed to develop a written proposal about how to "politically . . . get the site approved"? Gee, and here everyone had been under the impression that Ridder's job was to persuade the Heat to stay, when apparently the Heat saw Ridder's role as being one in which he sneaks things past commissioners.

That's right, he's Tony Ridder, secret agent man.
So where is Ridder's plan for getting the site approved? You got me. I looked and looked through all the material he released last week and couldn't find a single page of political strategy. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Which seems difficult to believe, as the Heat specifically asked for a response in writing, and even went so far as to send Ridder a note three days later reminding him they were anxiously awaiting his reply.

There appear to be other gaps in the documents Ridder released. Minutes exist for some meetings of Ridder's ad hoc arena committee, but not for others. There is the original six-week contract for $240,000 ($240,000!) between Ridder and the arena consultants he hired to help him craft the deal with the Heat. But there are only drafts of a subsequent contract, in which the consultants were demanding an additional $250,000 to stick with the arena project for a few weeks more. And since the consultants are still on the job, it's safe to assume they are being paid. But how much? And under what terms?

Not to worry, though. A deposition, like a subpoena, can be a marvelous thing -- as Ridder will soon find out.

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