Judge dismisses antitrust lawsuit against Bengals

Updated: February 9, 2006, 9:16 PM ET
Associated Press

CINCINNATI -- A judge on Thursday dismissed Hamilton County's federal antitrust lawsuit against the Cincinnati Bengals and the National Football League because the suit was not filed within the four-year statute of limitations.

U.S. District Judge S. Arthur Spiegel threw out the suit without getting to the merits of the county's argument that the Bengals misled taxpayers and officials by contending they needed a new stadium to be profitable and might move if they didn't get one.

Hamilton County taxpayers in 1996 approved a one-half-cent sales tax increase to finance the $450 million Paul Brown Stadium. Commissioners signed a lease with the Bengals the following year.

The antitrust lawsuit was not filed until 2003, three years after the Bengals began using the stadium.

"To be sure, the lease that Hamilton County enjoys with the Bengals is highly favorable -- perhaps egregiously so -- to the Bengals," Spiegel wrote.

He said prior members of the board were aware of allegations that league and its teams wielded unlawful antitrust power to obtain favorable leases, but by not filing suit sooner the chance "was lost to the passage of time."

"We are pleased that Judge Spiegel took the time to thoroughly analyze the case and conclude that the facts were on our side," Bengals owner Mike Brown said in a statement released by the team.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league believes Spiegel's opinion demonstrates there was no basis for the county's claims.

Commissioner Todd Portune said he favored discussing all options with attorneys, including an appeal, filing a lawsuit in state court or seeking to reopen negotiations with the Bengals.

It was Portune who originally filed suit against the Bengals as an individual taxpayer. When conflict-of-interest questions arose regarding his position as a commissioner, community activist Carrie Davis took his place as lead plaintiff.

Eventually, county commissioners took over the suit.

Portune said Thursday that the Bengals were largely to blame for the county facing a deficit of $191 million.

In February 2004, Spiegel rejected the NFL's motion to dismiss the case, ruling that Davis could pursue her claims that the NFL violated federal antitrust provisions by using its monopoly to "extort" new stadiums and highly favorable lease terms.

In his ruling Thursday, Spiegel explained why he did not rule at that time that the statute of limitations had expired. He said a new standard was applied when the county commission took over the suit, based not on what an outsider like Davis could know about negotiations but what commissioners knew or should have known.

Spiegel noted that county officials knew all along that the Bengals were profitable, although the lawsuit alleged that the statute of limitations started not in 1997 but in May 2001 when commissioners got a clearer image of profits based on information in a lawsuit between the league and Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis.


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press