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Emails contradict statements, court filings in proposed Clippers arena deal

Emails contradict statements, court filings in proposed Clippers arena deal
Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts holds a special city council meeting in the council chambers at City Hall on July 21, 2017. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Discussions between Clippers and Inglewood representatives about building an arena in the city started several months earlier than previously disclosed, according to emails filed Wednesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

The emails contradict public statements and court filings on behalf of Inglewood and Mayor James T. Butts Jr.

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Dennis Wong, who roomed with Clippers owner Steve Ballmer in college and controls a small percentage of the team, emailed developer Chris Meany in June 2016 under the subject heading “Inglewood site #3.”

“Chris, in our last conversation, you mentioned that the Inglewood mayor is working hard on our behalf to get us there,” Wong wrote. “As you know, we are pursuing multiple sites until we get traction on one that we can control and also entitle. I know that you believe we can both control and entitle the site in Inglewood … that is partially controlled by MSG so long as we make a ‘deal’ with Irv Azoff.”

The email is included in a declaration by an attorney for the Madison Square Garden Co. as part of a lawsuit accusing Inglewood of violating California’s Public Records Act in connection with the arena plan. The privately financed Inglewood Basketball and Entertainment Center, currently under environmental review, would occupy mostly vacant land owned by the city and related agencies along West Century Boulevard.

MSG, which owns the nearby Forum, sued last year after the city produced only five documents in response to a public records request about the project. All of the documents were dated after the June 2017 announcement of Inglewood’s three-year exclusive negotiating agreement with the Clippers.

Butts told constituents in a newsletter at the time that negotiations with the Clippers started in January 2017. That date changed to April 2017 in later court filings by the city.

“The exhibits also confirm that Mayor Butts began working with the Clippers with respect to a potential arena deal at least as early as June 2016,” the filing said. “Nevertheless, the City claims that not a single record was produced between June 2016 and April 28, 2017, no emails, text messages, phone messages, calendar entries, memos or other documents.”

Speaking on behalf of Butts and Inglewood, attorney Skip Miller said that the 2016 discussions were about the Clippers building an arena on the site of the old Hollywood Park racetrack. Miller said Butts rejected the proposal.

Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, left, and coach Doc Rivers watch the team during practice at the USC Galen Center.
Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, left, and coach Doc Rivers watch the team during practice at the USC Galen Center. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“There were no negotiations, no discussions, until April of 2017 about the Clippers going on the property that’s currently subject to the exclusive negotiating agreement,” Miller said. “Whoever is feeding you this information … is not being truthful about the emails.”

Wong’s email from June 2016 specifically references the MSG property. Another email from Meany to Wong in September 2016 included a copy of the lease between MSG and Inglewood for the property at issue, then noted they had an appointment with Butts in three weeks.

“None of these lawsuits have any merit, none whatsoever,” Howard Sunkin, a spokesman for the project, said.

Following his first season owning the Clippers after buying the team for $2 billion, Ballmer expressed his desire for the team to have its own arena because of its low priority on booking dates and the lack of corporate sponsorship opportunities as a tenant at Staples Center, sharing the venue with the Lakers and Kings. The team’s lease runs through 2024.

Ballmer and Wong took multiple trips to different sites and had initial discussions about a new arena as far back as 2015, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who was not authorized to speak publicly.

The emails filed in court give the clearest picture to date of when the Clippers and Inglewood started discussing the project.

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In a follow-up email to Wong in June 2016, Meany suggested a “private meeting with the mayor to get full situational awareness and then talk to neighbors.”

Wong responded: “I just spoke to Steve and am fine with your approach, so no need to discuss further.”

Meany, project manager for the proposed arena, fills a similar role with the adjacent 298-acre mixed-use development financed by Rams owner Stan Kroenke that’s under construction. The complex includes a multi-billion-dollar stadium for the Rams and Chargers that’s scheduled to open in 2020.

In a subsequent email to Meany, Wong said the Clippers needed the cooperation of Butts “in a major way to accomplish our goals.” Meany and Wong settled on a 9:30 a.m. meeting with Ballmer and Butts on June 24, 2016.

Another exchange between Meany and Wong scheduled a meeting with Butts at Inglewood City Hall in late September 2016.

The emails don’t contain details of either meeting.

MSG’s filing said the emails were among about 1,200 documents turned over by Meany’s firm in response to a subpoena in a separate lawsuit. That complaint, filed in May, alleges that Butts tricked the company into terminating a lease to use vacant city-owned land for overflow parking — many of the same parcels where an arena could be built — in order to develop a technology park. Butts, who is running for reelection next month, denied the accusation.

Sunkin said the Clippers didn’t negotiate the agreement with Inglewood until after MSG agreed to give up the parking lease in April 2017.

In recent weeks, MSG attorneys deposed Butts and two Inglewood city councilmen. Brief excerpts have been filed in court, but the majority of Butts’ deposition is designated “highly confidential” and isn’t public.

“The evidence demonstrates that the City has intentionally destroyed and deleted responsive public records and failed to preserve responsive records. …” MSG attorneys wrote in a court filing earlier this month that references the depositions.

Part of the questioning revolved around a meeting between Butts, Wong and other unspecified attendees connected to the Clippers on April 21, 2017, that led to the 22-page exclusive negotiating agreement. During the deposition, Butts said he only met with Wong once and it was at this meeting. He couldn’t recall any other participants.

“Do you remember anything you talked about?” Butts was asked.

“I do not,” he said.

Times staff writers Benjamin Oreskes and Dan Woike contributed to this report.

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