The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was flirting with insolvency, but that didn’t stop its government overseers from incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal expenses to keep secret their deliberations on a new long-term lease for the stadium.
For more than a year, the Coliseum Commission fought an open-government lawsuit that challenged the legality of the closed-door talks on USC’s lease of the historic venue. The suit also sought to make records related to the deal public.
After losing the court battle, the commission had to pay about $415,000 in legal expenses incurred by the plaintiffs in the case, the Los Angeles Times and a 1st Amendment group called Californians Aware. The award, paid last week, is one of the largest ever granted under the state’s transparency statutes, experts said.
The commission was also forced to give The Times hundreds of pages of Coliseum emails. Their contents support critics who said stadium officials worked closely with USC to limit scrutiny of the deliberations while drafting a lease that favored the private university at the expense of the taxpayers who own the Coliseum.
The emails, along with others obtained earlier under the California Public Records Act, show the Coliseum’s top executive granting nearly every wish USC had for the negotiations and then helping the university build and maintain political support for the lease.
The lease won final approval from the Coliseum’s landlord, the California Science Center, in September.
The emails between Coliseum executive John Sandbrook and USC administrators, which cover the four months of talks on principal terms of the lease, feature none of the bargaining-table tensions that are typical of such negotiations. The documents show Sandbrook and commissioners deferring to USC on matters of transparency; at the school’s insistence, they signed a confidentiality agreement barring both sides from discussing the negotiations publicly.
In January 2012, Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe, a commissioner, wrote to Sandbrook that a special public hearing on the lease before the panel voted on it “is a must!”
USC Senior Vice President Todd Dickey, who also received the email, responded: “If you want us to hold an open house … and listen to 500 people speak for 5 hours, and maybe answer a few questions, I guess we can do that, but I see no value in that at all.”
Knabe and Sandbrook dropped the idea of a special public hearing. Knabe was unavailable for comment, a spokesman said. Sandbrook and Dickey did not respond to requests for comment.
The lease talks, which began in 2011, were in stark contrast to the commission’s negotiations with USC four years earlier, when the panel flatly rejected many of the school’s proposals.
But the more recent discussions came as a corruption scandal unfolded in the Coliseum’s management ranks. The controversy exposed the stadium’s weak financial underpinnings and proved embarrassing to the commission.
As a result, a majority of the panel members, who represent the city, the Board of Supervisors and governor’s office, opted to get out of the stadium management business and renegotiate their existing 25-year lease with USC, whose football team plays at the Coliseum.
The redrawn, 98-year agreement gave USC almost total control of the Coliseum and neighboring Sports Arena and nearly all revenue from the properties, including those from the sale of naming rights and advertising.
In return, the school picked up the commission’s annual rent to the state for the Coliseum land, which starts at $1 million, and promised to spend at least $70 million on stadium improvements.
The Times first asked for the Sandbrook-USC emails in February 2012. The commission produced some later that year but said the rest were exempt from disclosure because they involved confidential real estate negotiations.
The commission also rejected The Times’ position that the closed deliberations violated California’s Ralph M. Brown Act, which requires the government to do its business in public.
In July 2012, The Times and Californians Aware sued. In October of this year, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Luis A. Lavin found that the commission repeatedly violated the records law and Brown Act. He also determined that Sandbrook testified falsely in connection with his claim that secrecy was warranted because of the threat of a lawsuit by USC.
In a deposition, Sandbrook said the commission’s public agendas included references to closed-door discussions of a possible lawsuit by USC. However, the panel’s internal records showed no such discussions.
Lavin ordered the commission to release the emails and other documents and record all its closed-door meetings for three years.
The plaintiffs’ legal fees were paid by the Coliseum’s insurance company. The commission also spent money on its own outside attorneys, although it has yet to disclose how much.
Some of the emails the government sought to keep under wraps show that the stadium officials and USC collaborated in securing backing for the lease in City Hall and Sacramento.
In one exchange, Sandbrook asked Dickey if he knew an alternate commissioner who represented then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and might attend a lease meeting.
“Damn, no I don’t,” Dickey replied. “We need to get to the Mayor so he can encourage her to support the lease.”
After receiving a report that Villaraigosa was miffed at not receiving advance notice on the lease terms, Dickey wrote to Sandbrook and then-commission President David Israel, that USC President Max Nikias and others had been lobbying the mayor:
“Tom Sayles has been in constant contact with the Mayor’s office trying to get them to support the term sheet,” Dickey said in the correspondence, referring to a USC administrator. “We even had President Nikias call the Mayor and he got him today.”
Villaraigosa’s two representatives on the commission voted for the lease. The former mayor, now a USC faculty member, did not respond to interview requests.
In another email, Sandbrook shared with USC a briefing he said he received from City Councilman Tom LaBonge, a commission alternate, regarding Gov. Jerry Brown’s thoughts on the talks:
“Tom indicated that the Governor expressed his support for the Coliseum-USC negotiations but that he also indicated that ‘full value’ was needed.”
Sandbrook then wrote that he believed Brown might be misinformed about the Coliseum’s financial picture.
Dickey responded: “Our trustees are working on him.”
Brown’s three representatives on the commission subsequently voted for the lease. A Brown spokesman said he had no comment for this article. LaBonge did not respond to an interview request made through his spokeswoman.
As the lease talks progressed, Sandbrook also tipped off USC negotiator Kristina Raspe to potential missteps that could hurt USC’s position.
Sandbrook warned Raspe in a September 2011 email about a possible public relations problem for her side: painting a Coliseum tunnel in USC’s cardinal and gold colors.
“Would not holding off painting the remainder of the tunnel be wise in order to avoid criticism that ‘USC is already taking over?’ ” he wrote.
Shortly before the commission was scheduled to vote on its pursuit of a new lease, Sandbrook offered in an email to give Raspe “an update as to nose-counting.” The commission subsequently voted 8 to 0 — in secret — to begin negotiations.
In his testimony in the Times-Californians Aware lawsuit, Sandbrook denied that he had taken a poll of the commission before the panel voted, a practice generally prohibited by law because it leaves out the public. He said he was tallying “which commissioners understood and appreciated the gravity” of their obligations to USC.
Sandbrook later acknowledged the possibility that he had surveyed some commissioners on whether to reopen the lease.
Raspe, who no longer works for USC, did not respond to an interview request.
About four months after the commission vote, with the negotiations essentially concluded, Sandbrook alerted Raspe to a Trojan fan website that was urging that the Coliseum and the surrounding Exposition Park, which belongs to the public, be turned “into a true extension of the University of Southern California campus.”
Sandbrook wrote, “I am hoping that this website does not have a wide audience at City Hall or in other sections of Exposition Park.”
Once the lease terms were made public, the emails show, Sandbrook and USC worked together to urge USC alumni to post endorsement messages on the Coliseum’s website.
“Trojan Nation has been unleashed,” Sandbrook wrote to Raspe.
The tactic generated more than 2,800 positive responses, which Sandbrook cited in a report to the commission as evidence of public support for the lease.