District businessman and philanthropist Jonathan Ledecky, seeking to bolster his bid to buy the Washington Nationals, yesterday announced the formation of a baseball-driven charitable trust and the public support of four D.C. Council members in his quest for the club.
Ledecky — flanked at the Barry Farms Recreation Center in Southeast by council members Marion Barry, Kwame Brown, Vincent Gray and Vincent Orange — provided $100,000 in seed money for the Washington Baseball Community Trust and pledged to keep supporting the organization regardless of whether he becomes the Nationals’ owner.
The trust specifically will seek to improve baseball fields and after-school activities for District youth and also will target grants for job training, education and health care.
The planned community involvement arrives at a sensitive time in Major League Baseball’s quest to select an owner for the Nationals. A winner for the ongoing auction is expected later this summer, and Ledecky is one of eight bidders in a field believed to be closely bunched, with offers for the club near or more than $400 million.
Ledecky said the trust, rather than being simply a tactical move, is an outgrowth of six years of active charitable giving through his Ledecky Foundation to more than 70 local groups.
“Major League Baseball has made it clear that the main two criteria for becoming owner of this team are going to be price and commitment to the community,” Ledecky said. “And it’s not enough to just pledge something for the future or come in for just two minutes. They’re looking for a sustained record of meaningful involvement. We have that, though it’s been up to now very quiet and behind the scenes.
“We’re now waving the flag and trying to be more vocal about how much baseball can be an instrument for good works helping the needs of this city. The Nationals have their own foundation, but they haven’t been able to meet every need out there. We need something that can build on what they’re doing.”
The presence of the four council members to endorse Ledecky and the trust presented several interesting wrinkles. Anthony Williams, District mayor and frequent political sparring partner with the council and owner of the job Orange seeks, long has supported a rival bid for the Nationals led by local businessmen Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients. Their group, the Washington Baseball Club, also has a charitable arm that has made many donations to city baseball leagues, and WBC investor Joe Robert is well known in local circles for his extensive philanthropy.
“The mayor ought to change his mind [about Malek],” Barry said.
Vince Morris, spokesman for Williams, said the mayor remains staunchly behind Malek and Zients.
“The mayor has indicated a preference, and that’s because he believes the Malek group has the most local ties and the most sensitivity to the needs of our community,” Morris said.
Also, Brown, Gray and Barry all oppose the current plan for the District to finance the entire $607 million cost for the Nationals’ new stadium in Southeast. But Brown and his colleagues said Ledecky and the foundation provide a powerful means to better the city. The council members said they do not intend to press Ledecky to change the existing stadium deal or provide a front-end team contribution toward its construction.
“Jon Ledecky is the only [Nationals bidder] who bothered to come by my office to visit,” Brown said. “How many other bidders have come by to talk to the council, much less come to Southeast Washington? We’re certainly not behind this 100 percent public financing deal. But any ownership of this team should be local and already invested in this community.”
Chairing the new charitable trust will be Frank Smith, a former Ward 1 council member and leader of the District’s efforts to land a major league baseball team in the late 1980s.
Meanwhile, Ledecky announced the addition of Jack A. Hidary, a New York real estate executive, and his two sons as minority investors in his bid for the club.
Ledecky also called the recent furor over another junior partner in his bid, global financier George Soros, “unfortunate.” Several Republicans in Congress, most notably Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, branded the addition of Soros to the Nationals chase as a black mark for the game, citing his vitriolic rebukes of President Bush and support for some drug legalization efforts. The remarks caused an immediate and heated battle with leading Democrats.
But Ledecky said Soros’ involvement comprises less than 15 percent of the potential deal, and furthermore the two men have never met or spoken with each other. Soros’ prior investment in U.S. Office Products, a company Ledecky founded in the early 1990s, and his current one in the Nationals bid both were arranged through intermediaries.
“We came out in April and made our statements about wanting to be an integral part of the community through baseball and do good works around the city. And it was at that point Soros’ people called me and asked to join us,” Ledecky said. “It was really done in a very positive, altruistic way. I never really thought about the political considerations.”