Unfinished business before RFK renovations vote

Updated: October 15, 2004, 10:25 PM ET
Associated Press

MIAMI -- A hearing on the lawsuit aimed at blocking the Montreal Expos' move to Washington, D.C. will be held in Miami the day before the capital's city council is scheduled to vote on millions of dollars in renovations to RFK Stadium to make it ready for next season.

U.S. District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro-Benages on Friday set Dec. 6 for the hearing on the motion for a preliminary injunction against the move sought by 14 former limited partners in the Expos.

The judge left open the possibility she would rule from the bench at the end of the hearing.

The partners sued in Miami federal court in July 2002 claiming major league baseball and commissioner Bud Selig fraudulently conspired with former Expos principal owner Jeffrey Loria to eliminate Montreal and allow him to buy the Florida Marlins. The injunction would halt the Expos' move pending trial on the merits of their claims.

But a three-member arbitration panel's ruling expected by Nov. 15 may make the hearing moot.

Jeffrey Kessler, attorney for the minority partners, told the judge at Friday's status conference that if the arbitrators were to rule conclusively against the partners it is "very unlikely we'll proceed with the motion for preliminary injunction."

But he added he didn't expect an unfavorable ruling.

Loria and Marlins president David Samson, also a defendant in the suit, and the minority partners were told in 2002 to resolve their dispute through arbitration. Major league baseball and Selig were not parties in the arbitration.

The arbitrators ended the hearing last Aug. 18 and said they planned to release their findings and rulings by Nov. 15.

The Dec. 6 hearing will leave Loria and Samson on the sidelines since it will only concern whether the Expos will be blocked from leaving Montreal. But Bradley Ruskin, attorney for Loria and Samson, raised the possibility he would ask for the hearing to be closed to the news media and public if the lawyers for the former partners aimed to disclose confidential financial information about the Marlins. Ungaro-Benages ordered him to file any closure motion by Nov. 24 to allow time for her to schedule a hearing for the media to respond.

Robert Kheel, baseball's lawyer, said at Friday's hearing that time was pressing for a decision on the injunction motion. He said the Washington City Council is scheduled to vote Dec. 7 on spending $10 million to $15 million on RFK renovations.

"Commitments are already being made, people are being hired and money is being spent to ready RFK between December and April 2005," Kheel said. "RFK was built in 1961 and there has been no baseball played there since 1971. We need to move quickly. Every day is hurting us. We need a decision sooner than later."

The judge in reply said that it was possible she could move the Dec. 6 hearing to an earlier date if the arbitrators rule before Nov. 15. She added, "If the arbitrators do not rule, we still have to go."

The minority partners sued after the Expos were bought in 2002 for $120 million by baseball's other 29 teams, freeing Loria to buy the Marlins. The judge froze their suit last year, pending arbitration. She also opened a 90-day window before the team could be moved to give her time to consider motions.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press