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November 29, 2008 11:00 AM

The Ballad of BenJarvus Green-Ellis--A Hard-Hitting, SEC-Style Look at Sports and the Law

Posted by Brian Baxter

The Am Law Daily returns with our semi-regular look at sports and the law. And what better name to headline our second installment than that of a football player whose many names have earned him the nickname the "law firm."

The player in question: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, a former first-team all-SEC running back, who like many Am Law 100 firms, has fallen on leaner times.

(In case you missed last week's note, our column name is still a work in progress. After being slandered in this space last week for being an unabashed Yankee fan, this reporter wasn't about to go for another Red Sox reference, even if it meant using another Beantown sports figure in the Youk's stead.)

Green-Ellis isn't the only one who's had a tough time recently. Pepperdine law grad and Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach saw his No. 2-ranked Red Raiders get a royal spanking by the Oklahoma Sooners on November 22. Leach, who gave up a legal career to coach college football, subsequently saw his team drop to No. 7 in the BCS standings. (If you haven't already read it, check out this excellent profile of Leach by Michael Lewis in The New York Times.)

To the Am Law Daily, the big sports story of the holiday weekend was the plight of the winless Detroit Lions. Sad to say--with the Lions getting crushed, 47-10 by the Tennessee Titans, in its traditional Thanksgiving Day game--things aren't looking any better now that the leftovers are all gone.

The Motor City has been getting sideswiped from all angles lately--from auto industry execs falling on their collective face in congressional hearings last week to General Motors so desperate to cut costs that it bailed out of an endorsement deal with Tiger Woods on Monday--but the Ford-family owned Lions offer an especially stark symbol of the city's (and, for that matter, the country's) woes. Things are so bleak that the team's own fan site labeled the Lions a "national embarrassment."

The lucky guy overseeing this fiasco at the moment: ex-Washington Redskins defensive back Martin Mayhew. The onetime Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld summer associate is heading Detroit's football operations on an interim basis. We covered Mayhew's "promotion" in September with Akin Gump labor and employment partner Daniel Nash telling us that he once tried to convince Mayhew to stay at the firm. "[Mayhew] decided he had other opportunities he wanted to pursue," Nash said.

In fairness to Mayhew, most of the team's problems are not of his doing. Some well-respected National Football League executives consider Mayhew a rising star and the former Redskin can take solace in one small Lions victory: the team just sold out its first home game in four tries, meaning the game will be televised locally for fans who can stomach it.

The sports world has a strange way of rewarding the downtrodden when they least expect it. It didn't work out for Detroit on Thanksgiving, but there's another game this Sunday. Who knows, maybe the Lions will finally get into the win column. Good luck with that, Martin. Something tells us you'll need lots of it.

Also on the sports law docket in recent weeks:

Fish Back in Water

One of the few remaining obstacles to a new stadium for the Florida Marlins was removed on November 21 when Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jeri Beth Cohen issued an order ending a civil suit by local auto dealer and philanthropist Norman Braman.

A laughingstock when it comes to attendance figures--the team ranked dead last among Major League Baseball's 30 teams in 2008 despite being oddly successful on the field with two World Series wins in the past 11 years--the Marlins claim they need a new stadium if they're to have a future in the Magic City. (Plans call for a 37,000-seat, retractable-roof stadium on the site of the now-demolished Orange Bowl in the Little Havana neighborhood.)

But in a civil suit filed against the team and city in January 2008, Braman challenged the financing package for a $3 billion public works project that included construction of the new stadium, as well as a tunnel for the Port of Miami, several parks and museums, and a downtown trolley line. (Braman's name may sound familiar to sports fans. Besides a penchant for legal battles over the use of public money, he owned the Philadelphia Eagles from 1985 to 1994.)

Braman tapped two legal heavy-hitters from Coral Gables's Colson Hicks Eidson for the case: former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida Roberto Martinez and Paul Huck, Jr., former general counsel to current Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. (Huck's father, Paul, is the U.S. district court judge in Miami who presided over the conspiracy and fraud trial of former Greenberg Traurig lobbyist Jack Abramoff.)

Holland & Knight litigation partner Sanford "Sandy" Bohrer represented the Marlins during a nearly two week-long bench trial in July. Miami's chief litigator was deputy city attorney Warren Bittner. (None of the lawyers involved immediately responded to requests for comment.)

Judge Cohen initially ruled in September that the stadium plan served a "paramount public purpose" and that Braman had insufficient legal grounds on which to overturn decisions by public officials to use tax dollars to pay for the construction project. She delayed a ruling on whether or not to allow a public vote on the issue.

As a result of Judge Cohen's latest order, a referendum to approve the estimated $515 million cost of a new stadium won't be held. (Check out this Am Law Daily story from September on how the New York Yankees used tax breaks to finance their new stadium--hey, we gotta pay C.C. somehow.)

Braman's lawyers told The Associated Press they plan to appeal, and Marlins officials say that the new stadium will open a year behind schedule because of litigation-related delays.

In Bonds Case, Three Less Strikes Against Slugger

Former San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds will have three less counts to face when his federal perjury trial begins in the City by the Bay next March.

On Monday U.S. district court judge Susan Illston--who's also presiding over a high-profile human rights case against Chevron--dismissed counts relating to alleged false statements that Bonds made when testifying before a grand jury in December 2003 about his use of performance-enhancing drugs. (The subsequent BALCO investigation forever changed the landscape of steroids and sports, leading to baseball's DLA Piper-backed Mitchell Report, which still has the firm's global chairman crowing. The American Lawyer's Paul Braverman exhaustively covered DLA's role behind the report in this March 2008 feature story.)

In a nine-page order, Illston found two counts against Bonds to be vague and ambiguous, merged two other counts, and asked prosecutors to clarify another charge in order to proceed with their case against the all-time home run leader.

But Illston denied requests by Bonds's lawyers--led by Cristina Arguedas of Berkeley's Arguedas, Cassman & Headley and Allen Ruby of San Jose's Ruby & Schofield--to dismiss the bulk of the government's case. (Arguedas declined to comment.)

"In a high-profile perjury case like this, all the government needs to do to declare victory is get a single conviction," Columbia law professor and former federal prosecutor Daniel Richman told The New York Times. "The government has simply lost three opportunities to get a guilty verdict, but generally these cases break one way or the other based on the jury's overall impression of the defendant's truthfulness."

That's a challenge for Bonds's defense counsel. The normally taciturn ballplayer flirted with hiring Keker & Van Nest's John Keker after being charged in November 2007, but reportedly got sticker shock from the renowned litigator's $900-an-hour fee and turned to Arguedas instead.

No slouch herself, Arguedas has represented a string of high-profile clients, including former Hewlett-Packard general counsel Ann Baskins in the company's pre-texting scandal, former Apple GC Nancy Heinen on options-backdating charges, and former Milberg partner David Bershad in a kickback scheme.

The case is being prosecuted by assistant U.S. attorneys Matthew Parrella, Jeffrey Nedrow, Jeffrey Finigan, and appellate chief J. Douglas Wilson.

The World's Fastest Criminal

The infamous BALCO investigation didn't only affect Bonds and baseball. Sprinters Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones were also swept up in the furor over performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports. Montgomery was banned from track and field in 2005 and the former world record-holder later claimed that his fall from grace set him on a downward spiral that led him to participate in a check-cashing scam and heroin ring.

Currently serving a combined nine-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to charges in both cases, Montgomery admitted on Tuesday to using human growth hormone when he won a gold medal at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. The admission came in a televised interview with HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. (The Emmy Award-winning program is dealing with its own legal problems, recently getting slapped with a libel suit by former Eliot Spitzer consigliere Lloyd Constantine.)

The disclosure is merely the latest disgrace for Montgomery, who managed to involve Jones, his former girlfriend and the father of one of his children, in both the check scam and performance-enhancing drug scandal. (Represented by Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher's Maurice Suh--who's carved out a niche advising star-crossed athletes--Jones received a six-month sentence in January 2008 for her role in the check fraud and lying to investigators about her use of a designer steroid.)

Montgomery retained McGuireWoods litigation partner Timothy Heaphy for his criminal cases and noted drug-defense lawyer Howard Jacobs for hearings before the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. (USA Today called Jacobs the drug testing "version of Johnnie Cochran" in this 2006 story.)

Parting Shot
Given this week's events, will we return from the holiday weekend to discover that  Citi Field has been rechristened the Bailout Ballpark?

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