A civil lawsuit against Commissioner Bud Selig and the former owner of the Montreal Expos further clouds the future of the franchise and delays Major League Baseball's plan to eliminate or auction the only club it operates.
Attorneys representing the 14 former minority partners of the Expos, who want the club to be placed in a trust, filed the lawsuit Tuesday in Federal District Court in Miami against Selig, Jeffrey Loria, owner of the Florida Marlins and former managing partner of the Expos, and Bob DuPuy, baseball's chief operating officer, accusing them of mail fraud and wire fraud.
The group's suit contends that Selig, Loria and other high-ranking baseball officials conspired to eliminate baseball in Montreal and reduce their holdings--from 76% to about 7%--in the club.
The suit alleges Loria, a prominent New York art dealer, lied to the partners when he bought 24% of the Expos in 1999. He increased his stake to 94% through a series of cash calls, reducing the percentages of his partners when they could not come up with the money.
The suit contends that that violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970 (RICO), and calls for $100 million in punitive damages and unspecified compensatory damages. And the group's announced intention to seek an injunction if baseball tries to move or fold the team could present the biggest immediate headache for Selig with contraction, he maintains, still the next step for the Expos.
"When you talk about the Montreal Expos, everything up to this point has bogged down the prospects of contraction and relocation," said David Carter of the Sports Business Group, an L.A.-based consulting firm. "Now, when you fold in this RICO lawsuit, what it really does is slow down the process to a crawl."
Loria called the claims "completely without merit," adding that "it is ironic that these partners are now claiming to be so committed to baseball in Montreal when they were unwilling to fund a penny of operating losses since 1991, and instead directed 'fire sales' of players during the 1990s."
DuPuy, commenting on behalf of baseball, dismissed the suit as being "frivolous" and "wholly without merit", saying the commissioner's office had nothing to do with the losses and criticizing the partners' action as a "shameless attempt to obtain through publicity what they know they are not entitled to legally."
Regardless of motives, the suit stirs more questions about the future of the Expos, who many believe are in their last season in Montreal but will remain in existence after bidding between competing groups seeking a franchise for Northern Virginia and Washington. The Expos' recent acquisitions of pitcher Bartolo Colon and outfielder Cliff Floyd lends credibility to the theory that the club, under the direction of the commissioner's office, is trying to make its roster more attractive to increase the price in a possible relocation auction.
Selig postponed contraction after owners were pummeled in the Minnesota courts, which ruled the Twins had to honor their 2002 lease in the Metrodome, and baseball settled a Minnesota lawsuit by agreeing not to eliminate the Twins for the 2003 season. The Expos currently do not have a contraction partner, increasing the likelihood of Major League Baseball returning to the Washington area after a 31-year absence.
The arbitrator ruling on the contraction grievance filed by the Major League Baseball Players Assn., trying to prevent Selig from unilaterally eliminating teams, is expected Aug. 1, and the suit could be another issue on the table when owners and the union meet again this week.
"Obviously, [the suit] complicates things, sort of across the board," said Don Fehr, executive director of the union. "We're hearing that they still want to contract [the Expos], and all of this has to sort itself out before anything can happen.
"We have suggested, as part of our bargaining proposals, that before they contract, they ought to consider any offers to buy and relocate. So far, they've rejected that, so we can only proceed based on what they're saying."
Some believe signs indicate the Expos are moving instead of folding, pointing to the acquisitions of Colon and Floyd for support. Although Floyd can become a free agent after the season, the addition of both players to the surprising club's roster could help it remain in contention for the National League wild-card berth.
"Strictly looking at it from a baseball standpoint, you've got to like their club," Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane said. "They've got power, speed and starting pitching. What's been great is that there has been energy injected into what seemed like a hopeless situation going into the season, but the other side of it is that you're also dealing with sort of an artificial situation too."