Did the Bengals Claw Taxpayers?

A local official is suing the team over the financing of Paul Brown Stadium

If the Dallas Cowboys are America's Team, the Bengals are Cincinnati's Torment. This year's 0-3 start prolongs the misery for Bengals fans, who last season endured a franchise-worst 2-14 record. Even the good old days were lousy: In the '90s, the Bengals had the worst record in pro football.

The only victory the team has had this season came in a courtroom. On Sept. 5, a judge in Hamilton County dismissed a lawsuit alleging, among other things, that the Bengals committed fraud in duping county taxpayers into footing the bill for three-year-old Paul Brown Stadium. The suit claimed that the franchise compounded its deceit when management failed to make minimal efforts to field a competitive team.

"People here are beginning to differentiate between rooting for the players and feeling used by management," says Todd Portune, the Hamilton County commissioner who filed the suit as an individual taxpayer.

Paul Brown Stadium opened in 2000 after years of friendly persuasion and arm-twisting. Team management began its campaign in the early '90s, claiming that new revenue from a gleaming pigskin palace was the only way for the team to remain viable. There were also veiled threats to move up the road to Baltimore. Hamilton County taxpayers approved a half-penny sales tax to fi- nance the $458 million stadium in March, 1996.

In a city where dislike of Bengals owner Mike Brown runs deep because of years of losing and disastrous public relations, the ruling for the team hardly ends the matter. Portune filed an appeal that day. And a federal lawsuit also brought by Portune against the team and the National Football League on antitrust grounds is awaiting a hearing.

The double-barreled legal action is an extreme example of local anger at a pro sports franchise that corralled hundreds of millions in public money for a new stadium. Indeed, the stadium deal is at the core of the dispute between the Bengals and Portune, the lone Democrat on the three-member county commission that negotiated the lease for the facility.

(He decided to file suit alone when his colleagues voted against suing the team.) But another factor is exasperation with Brown, 68, the son of exalted team founder and Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown. "We're the butt of every NFL joke. How would that make you feel?" says Portune.

Since the elder Brown's death in 1991, Mike, a Harvard law grad, has shown none of his father's genius for assembling a winning team. He has made most decisions himself, only this year delegating more authority to highly regarded new coach Marvin Lewis. From 1994 to 2001, the Bengals spent less on player salaries than all but two franchises. "To Mike, there's no science to putting together a team. He sees players as interchangeable drill bits," says Bob Trumpy, an NFL radio analyst and Bengals receiver from 1968 to 1977. Brown declined to comment for this story.

FOLLOW THE MONEY. In one category, however, the owner has performed like an All-Pro: counting cash. From 1995 to 1999, the Bengals four times racked up annual profits of $10 million or more, according to financial documents disclosed in 2001 during litigation filed by Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis against the NFL. In 1996, when the team managed an 8-8 record, Brown & Co. ended the season with a nearly $11 million profit, eighth-highest in the NFL.

Portune vividly recalls reading those figures and flashing back to his months of listening to Brown and other Bengal officials warn that the team couldn't stay competitive unless taxpayers footed the bill for its home field. "It was a jaw-dropper," he recalls.

The disclosures set in motion the litigation that some see as political theater but that Portune defends as payback for the Bengals' iniquity. "I don't relish [the lawsuits]. I think they're absolutely necessary given the way the community was taken to the cleaners," he says. Legal experts say the antitrust claims may have the best chance, since the league could be found liable if it used its monopoly power to threaten a city with the loss of a team if it didn't pony up.

Jeffrey Pash, the NFL's lawyer, naturally believes the suits have no merit. "At the end of the day, I don't think there'll be any finding of wrongdoing," he says. Either way, taxpayers in Bengals country may have passed the collection plate for the last time.

By Mark Hyman

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.