Reprinted with the permission of The Weekly Planet
March 25, 1997
Forget in this time of jubilation – for just a moment – that former Tampa Mayor Bill Poe won a stunning victory for every taxpayer in Hillsborough County last week, proving that a plan to build Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer a football stadium is unconstitutional.
There is potentially a far more important lawsuit going on that you need to think about. It also exposes this same depraved, sports-at-any-cost mentality among the junta that believes Hillsborough County is its very own Banana Republic. Depending on how that lawsuit turns out, taxpayers could be at risk for hundreds of millions of dollars. More horrible, Tampa’s name could be so blemished, a thousand sports palaces wouldn’t offset the public relations damage.
In 1993, as a plan to build a hockey arena was wheezing on life-support, the coliseum developers began telling government officials and journalists of possible organized crime influence in the ownership of the Tampa Bay Lightning. There was never any direct proof offered. The most specific allegation was that an entertainment division of Sony had backed out of participation in the arena project because of distaste for Kokusai Green Ltd., the Japanese outfit that controlled the hockey team. Sony itself never made or verified the allegation.
Now comes the lawsuit, filed March 7 in federal court, and for the first time it puts in print a highly charged accusation – "gangsters" – that has been whispered among the city’s leaders for four years.
Tom McEwen, the long-time sports editor and columnist at The Tampa Tribune recalled last week: "Yeah, I heard that many times." Don Gifford, attorney for the Tampa Sports Authority, also remembered the allegations.
Even David LeFevre, the Lightning’s governor and the lawyer responsible for the eventual building of the Ice Palace, said there was plenty of smoke swirling around the team’s owners in 1993. He was called into a meeting of officials, including Gifford and then-Mayor Sandy Freedman. "They all looked at me with long faces and said, ‘What about all of this?’" LeFevre said last week. "I told them what I knew" – which the lawyer maintained was very little – "and nothing ever came of it."
The Lightning lawsuit is basically the work of Marc Ganis, one of three principals in Tampa Coliseum Inc., which collapsed in 1993 after failing to obtain $96 million in financing for an arena adjacent to Tampa Stadium. The lawsuit charges that the Lightning’s ownership coveted the arena for itself – a prize worth more than $100 million in profits – despite a long-standing partnership between the team and the developers. That the Lightning made life very difficult for Tampa Coliseum is an understatement – the motives for the team’s intractability are what will be disputed in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also states that the Lightning concealed the true owner of Kokusai Green, a secretive Japanese businessman named Takashi Okubo. The daily newspapers didn’t discover him until long after Kokusai Green hit town – even then, neither the Trib nor the St. Petersburg Times really checked Okubo out.
At issue if there is a trial in the lawsuit will be why Okubo is so inscrutable – because he likes his privacy or something darker.
Other issues have added to the smoke. The president of the Lightning is Saburo (Steve) Oto. Before he came to Tampa, Oto, a highly regarded California accountant, helped arrange the purchase by Japanese of the Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. According to a 1993 Los Angeles Times story, Oto’s clients in the deal, the Watanabe family, had close ties to now-deceased Japanese power broker Shin Kanemaru, who was accused of graft and ties to Japan’s mob. The Times said officials with two federal agencies confirmed that the Riviera deal was being investigated for possible Japanese money laundering.
Oto, who was not mentioned in the Times story, said this week that while he was a consultant for a Watanabe company, the deal was legitimate and that Kanemaru was not involved.
Anonymous mailings on Oto’s background have been sent to reporters. What do they prove? Nothing beyond tenuous guilt by association. Should they have made the press curious? Absolutely. Has Oto’s background, including the Riviera deal ever been probed by the local media? Nope.
Why should you care? If it turns out that there is something sinister about the Lightning’s ownership, the team could plunge into insolvency and the National Hockey League could pull the franchise and move the franchise. The league specifically stipulated in the arena deal that it was not responsible for the $140 million debt on the Ice Palace.
Who would then pay for the arena? You.
The ego-driven Ganis is a hard man to like. But he is the darling of pro sports team owners for his ability to make stadiums happen, and has collected about $2.5 million in fees from three deals in recent years. He suffered his one major embarrassment in Tampa, and his friends (who don’t want to be named) say he is willing to sink $1 million to destroy his nemesis, LeFevre.
LeFevre, meanwhile, may make a bid to become the executive director of the sports authority – not likely if allegations in the lawsuit are proven (a big "if"). And, potential buyers of the Lightning may not want to jump into such a mess.
But the real consideration is this. If so many people knew the allegations about the Lightning, why did no one check them out. All the hockey league wanted to know about Kokusai Green was whether its checks for the $50 million franchise fee cleared the bank. The Trib’s management never launched an investigation – and I was an editor who along with others made repeated requests to do so.
And our public officials? "Whoever put the dollars up (to buy the Lightning) isn’t relevant to us," Gifford said.
Isn’t relevant? These are the public’s dollars that are building stadiums and arenas for the teams’ owners, Mr. Gifford.
What was relevant was a lot of self-interest. One reason to scuttle the Tampa Coliseum site was that powerful people wanted it downtown to prop up sagging real estate investments and to bolster other ill-advised wastes of taxpayer money, such as the Florida Aquarium and Freedman’s abortive convention center hotel deal. The one man at the Trib who could have caused something to happen, McEwen, ended up on the Lightning’s payroll through a travel agency he owns (never acknowledged by the newspaper, of course). The paper itself is in partnership with the Lightning in a fan publication called Flash.
In short, money talks and it doesn’t matter who you do business with.
Now, it’s time to remember Bill Poe’s great victory last week. At the heart of Judge Sam Pendino’s decision is the fact that the officials, boosters and The Tampa Tribune, which have backed the stadium utilizing falsehoods and extorting votes in exchange for schools, didn’t give a hoot about the legality of the monstrously one-sided deal with the Bucs.
The Trib, before Pendino’s ruling, made sleazy insinuations about Poe’s motives and lectured Pendino on how he should rule. "Pendino won’t have any trouble seeing through Poe’s legal smoke screen," the newspaper said March 18, in an editorial clearly meant to tell the judge what Tampa’s Establishment expected of him.
Pendino, part of the Establishment, a sports fan and a judge who had previously ruled against Poe, nonetheless saw through the smoke of the government and the Trib. He found the Bucs deal faulty in one area and suspect in another. As Poe’s attorney, Chris Bentley said, "We got 100 percent of what we asked for." The stadium deal is, very simply, unconstitutional, Pendino ruled.
Perhaps now – while government lawyers try to trick an undoing of Pendino’s ruling – there will be time to think about the recipients of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. First there was Hugh Culverhouse, a vile philanderer who squeezed the community and gave back the worst professional sports team in the nation. Then there is George Steinbrenner, who despite many good works, was convicted of illegal campaign contributions to Richard Nixon; then was involved in a scummy deal with an extortionist; and now is trying to rip off New Yorkers for $1 billion for a new Yankees Stadium. Next was Malcolm Glazer, a trailer park slumlord who is accused in lawsuits of milking public companies he controls to pay for the Bucs, and who has even sued his own sisters to satisfy his greed.
Finally, there’s the Lightning owners. Maybe they’re just a bunch of Japanese businessmen. Maybe, if Ganis should prevail, we will learn they are something else. One thing is clear, the politicians and daily newspapers don’t care who government gives your money to as long as sports teams demand the tribute.