TAMPA — The Tampa Port Authority has finally responded to Liberty Channelside LLC's lawsuit to scuttle the port's deal to buy Channelside Bay Plaza from an Irish bank.
The port's response: Liberty's interests were never damaged by the port, Liberty has no standing to sue and the lawsuit was filed in the wrong court anyway.
Liberty, which once tried to buy Channelside itself, filed its lawsuit in December in the same Delaware federal bankruptcy court that is overseeing the sale of the downtown waterfront mall. Liberty wants to stop the sale, alleging that the port sabotaged Liberty's own deal to buy Channelside last summer.
But attorneys for the port argued in documents filed Wednesday that it is Liberty that is trying to strip the port's rights to Channelside.
The Tampa Port Authority and the Irish Bank Resolution Corp., or IBRC, both asked a federal bankruptcy judge to dismiss Liberty's suit — or hold off on ruling while the sale goes through.
The port said it could not sabotage a deal that never existed. Liberty never had an actual agreement with the Irish bank to buy Channelside, just letters of intent to buy the property if the port approved their deal — which the Tampa Port Authority never did.
"An agreement was never consummated between the Port and Liberty, and, thus, there was never any contractual privity between the Port and Liberty whatsoever," the port said in its response. "Rather, all that is alleged is the existence of negotiations between the Port and Liberty for a potential agreement."
Channelside Bay Plaza actually has two owners: The port owns the land, but the Irish bank owns the building, having foreclosed on it in 2010. Both had to agree on the choice of a new developer to turn the complex around, but never could.
Last summer, when Liberty negotiated a deal with the IBRC to buy Channelside, the port exercised its veto power and rejected the deal. Liberty needed port approval for the deal, but negotiations turned hostile. The port's governing board voted to end Liberty's deal with the bank in May.
Then in September, the port decided to sign its own deal to buy Channelside for $5.75 million. But the Irish bank also sought U.S. bankruptcy protection for its American assets, so the sale has to be approved by a federal judge. That's where the sale has been stalled.
Last week Channelside's owner, the IBRC, asked the federal judge to quickly approve the sale to the port. Liberty filed a response: It wants the judge to end the port's sale agreement and instead auction Channelside off.
But the port said Liberty has no standing to sue either the port or bank because it is not a party to the purchase agreement: "A person who is not a party to a contract cannot bring any cause of action based on the contract."
The port also argued that Liberty filed suit in the wrong court. Any claims Liberty has against the port — and Liberty appears to want the port to pay it damages — should be resolved in state court.
In fact, the sale is part of a settlement of the Hillsborough Circuit Court lawsuit between the port and bank. The Channelside sale needs the approval of both a federal judge and a state judge.
But if Liberty files a lawsuit in Hillsborough Circuit Court, too, that could mean yet another delay in the already-delayed Channelside deal.