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Hillsborough officials quietly hired law firm with ties to baseball

The Tampa Bay Rays’ contract with St. Petersburg binds the team to city-owned Tropicana Field until 2027. The team has insisted it needs a new stadium and has pushed to look outside the city.
Published Jan. 28, 2015

TAMPA — One of the most notable steps Hillsborough County has taken toward its desire to woo the Tampa Bay Rays to the county was also one of the quietest: County commissioners in October agreed to hire Foley & Lardner, a law firm with extensive ties to Major League Baseball and a partner who is a former MLB president.

Under terms of the one-year contract, the firm will be paid a flat monthly fee of $4,500 and attorneys can bill an hourly rate of up to $395.

The firm's ties to baseball were not discussed at the Oct. 15 meeting where Hillsborough commissioners agreed to hire the firm. A description on the commission's public agenda said only that Foley & Lardner was being hired to provide "specialized legal services . . . related to public private partnerships and other complex transactions." Two weeks earlier the commission had discussed lining up bond underwriters for financing and designated the Tampa Sports Authority as a lead agency to deal with the Rays — but made scant mention of hiring legal counsel.

The law firm's contract similarly says nothing about baseball, though most county officials acknowledge that was one of the primary reasons the firm was retained.

Foley & Lardner is based in Wisconsin but with offices in Tampa and around the world. Firm partner Mary Braza serves as outside counsel to MLB, the firm's website says. And partner Bob DuPuy is MLB's former president. The firm has represented the Milwaukee Brewers.

Why was the decision to hire the firm kept so quiet?

The city of St. Petersburg, which owns Tropicana Field where the Rays play, has as recently as 2012 threatened to sue Hillsborough if it made any attempt to speak to the Rays about relocating without permission. And Hillsborough leaders are sensitive to any claims of tortious interference by St. Petersburg.

But county attorney Chip Fletcher denied in an interview Tuesday that his office was trying to keep the news of the Foley & Lardner hiring quiet as part of any particular legal strategy.

Contracts to hire outside counsel, he said, are most often put on the commission's consent agenda, where noncontroversial items that require no discussion are typically placed and voted on and approved in one vote.

County Administrator Mike Merrill said the only legal tactic involved in the decision to hire the firm is the most obvious — grabbing the best available firm before somebody else did.

"Sometimes what happens, not that the Rays would do this but just speaking generically, you get in situations where the other side you're negotiating with goes out and hires all the best lawyers so you don't have anybody to work for you," Merrill said. "It happens. I don't think they would have done that. But nonetheless we wanted to be sure we had the best we could afford."

Fletcher said Foley & Lardner was hired to work on several sports-related issues and not just the Rays, saying the firm is working on contract issues related to Steinbrenner Field and Amalie Arena, among other issues.

But other county officials indicated the primary reason to hire the firm was the Rays. Commissioner Kevin Beckner said he was told as much in a briefing by county staffers before the Oct. 15 vote.

"The message I have tried to send to the Rays and Major League Baseball is that we're ready and we want the team," said Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan,

The St. Petersburg City Council has refused to give the Rays permission to negotiate with any suitors on a new stadium site despite Rays' attendance that is the lowest in baseball. The club is contractually bound to the Trop until 2027 but has long sought permission to look for a new stadium elsewhere.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman's office declined to comment Tuesday.

In October, Hillsborough commissioners appeared hopeful that St. Petersburg would eventually allow the Rays to search for new stadium sites elsewhere. But in December, the City Council rejected one negotiated deal between Kriseman and the team that would have limited the team's search to Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

As a result, Fletcher said, Foley & Lardner attorneys have actually done little work on the Rays.

Hagan said, "We're essentially in a holding pattern."

Contact William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432. Follow @Times_Levesque.

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