Wolff: Fraud suspected, but no San Antonio and MLS legal fight

Major League Soccer

An investigation by the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office and an outside law firm says the Major League Soccer expansion process was unethical and unfair.

However, the investigation also says it does not justify legal action against the league because the county’s application partner — the Spurs — withdrew the city from consideration.

Those details were made in a letter sent from Mikal Watts at Watts Guerra, LLP — the outside firm — to Judge Nelson Wolff Thursday.

The letter stated that there is no doubt that the process has been “unfair, unethical, and duplicitous.”

However, it noted that it is not clear whether a fraudulent expansion process denied San Antonio the opportunity to get an MLS team or if the decision by Spurs Sports and Entertainment to defer the application prevented the region from getting a team.

Since the Spurs are the applicant, Bexar County can’t sue the league.

Wolff believes MLS is acting improperly.

“I think the whole thing stinks,” the judge told KTSA Thursday.

The league, the lawyers, the Crew

The issue involves the Columbus Crew.

“We didn’t know at the time that the ownership of the Columbus Crew in Columbus, Ohio, could not move the team until 2023 with one exception — and that was to Austin,” Wolff explained.

According to a timeline put together by Watts Guerra, LLP, county officials met with MLS President Mark Abbott in early November 2015.  Among the topics discussed were the county’s plans to buy Toyota Field and the MLS expansion process.

Abbott stated then, according to the firm, that if a team were added in Texas, there would not be a franchise in both Austin and San Antonio.

He also stated that there were several factors when considering where a new team would go, including the television market, demonstrated support for soccer, strength of the ownership group and having a soccer-specific stadium plan.

Two days after that meeting, the county, the City of San Antonio and the Spurs announce their plans to buy Toyota Field.

That purchase deal includes a lease agreement where if the Spurs fail to bring an MLS team to the city, it will owe both the county and city $5 million as a reimbursement.

In December 2016, the league appoints Crew owner Anthony Precourt to the expansion committee.

“A guy that was trying to move the team to Austin was on the selection committee,” Wolff lamented.  “He knew all of the bids that were being submitted.  And then at the same time, he’s working over here to bring his team to Austin.  The whole thing stinks.”

The firm’s timeline stated that even after a May 2017 meeting with league officials, the San Antonio group were cautiously optimistic about their chances.  The prospect of a team ending up in Austin was never mentioned.

The tide turns, MLS fraud allegations

That changed in July, when the timeline states a lobbyist with professional soccer contacts the Austin City Council. A month later, MLS filed trademark applications for “Austin FC” and “Austin Athletic”.

In September, a planned meeting between the league and San Antonio area officials was canceled.

Weeks later, word broke that the Columbus Crew was planning to move to Austin in 2019 if a downtown stadium wasn’t built in the Ohio city.

At the same time, Precourt stated that he began looking at Austin as a relocation destination in early 2016.  A radio interview on SiriusXM by former player Brian Dunseth revealed that the team may have been eyeing Austin as early as 2014.

In late October, Wolff sent a letter to league commissioner Don Garber asking for clarification about San Antonio’s bid in the expansion franchise process.  In that, Wolff stated he was surprised to learn of the Crew’s interest in Austin, especially with owner Precourt’s role on the expansion committee.

Wolff further stated that if Bexar County knew about the league’s agreement with the Crew to have a legal right in Austin when Precourt bought the team in 2013, it would not have invested in Toyota Field.

It was in this letter he informed the league that the Bexar County Criminal District Attorney had been asked to get involved — prompting Thursday’s report back to Wolff from Watts Guerra, LLP.

Lawyers for the league wrote back slamming the county, calling the letter effectively a veiled threat.

It went further to say the league had no intention of expanding during the November 2015 meeting.  It also stated that it made no promise or commitment to the Spurs, city or county.

Regarding Austin, the MLS lawyers stated that the league has not received a formal notification that Precourt was moving the team to Austin and it would not preclude San Antonio from also getting a team.

While the league’s letter appears to show it is open to teams in each Austin and San Antonio, Wolff and Watts are not buying it.

“Bottom line, if they go to Austin, we are not going to get a franchise,” Wolff said.

What’s next for San Antonio

The issue — legally speaking — for Bexar County is that no matter how fraudulent the MLS expansion process has been, the county was not the applicant and cannot sue the league.

“The Spurs are the applicant,” the county judge stated. “We’ll wait and see what they say and do.  They are the ones that control the application process.  So, we’ll see what they will come back and say to us, but I don’t know if there is anything you can do right now as long as they are trying to go to Austin.”

Wolff likened the county’s position with the soccer league to dating.

“It’s kinda like you had a girlfriend and the girlfriend came up to you and said ‘You know, you’re okay, but I like this other guy much better and I’m going to do everything I can to get the other guy.  If I can’t get him, I may come back to you,'” said Wolff.

If San Antonio ends up missing out on getting a top-tier team, Wolff said the city still has a soccer team to root for in the USL’s San Antonio FC.

“We have a good team there, so regardless of how we come out with MLS, we still have that going for us.”

And if Austin — the 39th largest metropolitan area in the U.S. — gets an MLS team and San Antonio — the 31st largest metro area — doesn’t, Nelson Wolff will not be happy.

“I don’t like it one bit.”

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