Thursday, April 13, 2006

A leading group bidding to own the Washington Nationals has contacted minority members of its rivals in an effort to satisfy Major League Baseball by diversifying its membership, three sources close to the process said.

A group largely made up of the family of local real estate mogul Theodore “Ted” Lerner has been scrambling to add minorities in response to criticism by MLB officials that it lacked diversity. This latest effort to attract investors from other teams has been unsuccessful thus far, the sources said.

A spokesman for the Lerner group declined to comment or provide a list of its investors. The group has said baseball officials were given a list of minorities involved in the bid.

It is unclear whether such contact by group members is permitted. One source close to the process said contact usually can be made only with the permission of league officials. But another source said permission is not needed, as long as the bidding groups aren’t discussing details of their offers.

MLB President Bob DuPuy did not return calls requesting comment.

Eight groups have bid for the Nationals franchise, which is expected to sell for about $450million. The Lerners have been considered a favorite for several months, along with a group led by local businessmen Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients and another led by Indianapolis communications executive Jeff Smulyan. The Lerner group has also had discussions about a merger with former Atlanta Braves executive Stan Kasten, who submitted a bid of his own.

The Malek group has several minorities listed as investors, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell and prominent D.C. attorney Vernon Jordan.

Smulyan also has several minority partners, including Radio One executive Alfred Liggins, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and former Washington Redskins Charles Mann and Art Monk.

City officials have lobbied for strong minority involvement by the Nationals new owner.

“This is historic that we’re talking about this at all,” said D.C. Council member Kwame Brown, at-large Democrat and chairman of a special committee on local and minority involvement in businesses. “We should all be proud.”

A decision on the owner could be made within the next week.

The Lerner group has been uniquely silent during the bidding process, making few comments to the media and revealing little about the makeup of their group. The group was largely invisible during the debate between the city council and baseball about the Nationals new ballpark, and members never met with Mayor Anthony A. Williams or council members including Chairman Linda Cropp and Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and ardent baseball supporter.

In recent years, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig has been an outspoken supporter of adding more blacks and other minorities to the game and into front-office positions.

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