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Mayor calls Fielders’ amended lawsuit ‘fiction’

A sign Lake County Fielders baseball field Ziwhere proposed stadium was be built. | File photo

A sign at the Lake County Fielders baseball field in Zion where a proposed stadium was to be built. | File photo

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Updated: February 11, 2014 3:22AM

Zion Mayor Lane Harrison on Thursday called an amended lawsuit by owners of the Lake County Fielders baseball team that outlines allegations of bribery against him “fiction” and “unbelievable.”

The suit also refers to plans laid for the failed stadium project by Zion and a developer as a “site switch scheme,” and claims that former State Sen. Michael Bond had warned the city that its pursuit of stadium funding for the team was being “mishandled” and a lawyer should be hired, but his advice was not heeded.

“Not true,” Harrison said adamantly of each of those claims Thursday, in his first major public response to the ongoing lawsuit. “The information in this amended complaint is just as fictitious as everything else that has come from that camp.”

The lawsuit, filed by Grand Slam Sports, the ownership of the minor league team, initially claimed that Harrison and the city reneged on promises to build a $6 million to $7 million stadium for the minor league team, resulting in breach of contract.

The minor league baseball team, including owner Rich Ehrenreich,included civil conspiracy counts in the team’s lawsuit.

The team contends Harrison, former economic development director Delaine Rogers and developer Richard Delisle conspired to keep knowledge from the team about heavy debt on the new ballpark site — a more than $7 million mortgage — and that the three also conspired to defraud the team and provide potential profit to companies tied to Delisle.

The amended claim outlines bribery claims by stating that Delisle offered to purchase Harrison’s parents’ house at an inflated price at the same time Harrison guided the city to relocate the park from an initially planned site at Green Bay Road and 9th Street in the Trumpet Park Industrial area to the Route 173 site, where the temporary stadium was built.

Harrison said Thursday that he never was involved with the sale agreement concerning his parents’ house and went out of the way to make clear that he recused himself in every way from those negotiations.

He also said that Ehrenreich was fully behind the move to the new site favored by Delisle.

“Did we want it next to a salvage yard and landfill (at Trumpet Park) or at 173 and Green Bay Road, a thriving business corridor? He (Ehrenreich) was on board,” Harrison said. “It was a better location.”

The amended claim also says that Bond was concerned about the direction the project was taking under the city’s leadership.

“By the fall of 2009, State Senator Bond informed the city that its pursuit of funding was being mishandled, and suggested an attorney to represent the city, which Harrison refused,” the suit states.

Harrison denied that any such information came from Bond, and while acknowledging that the city has spent “a lot of money” on the project, denied claims that more than $7 million in city revenue has been spent by Zion on items related to the stadium project, including site prep for the stadium, lighting and legal fees.

Harrison said it was Grand Slam’s decision to stop paying rent for the facility and also to stop paying its employees that led the City Council to decide against issuing bonds to finance a new stadium because there was sufficient doubt over whether enough revenue would be made to repay the bonds.

On Oct. 31, Lake County Circuit Court Judge Jorge Ortiz issued a mixed ruling on the initial lawsuit filed by the Lake County Fielders, dismissing some aspects of the suit but retaining significant claims.

In a press release, the city described that ruling as favorable to the defendants in the suit.

“Of utmost importance to Zion is the dismissal with prejudice of the plaintiff’s breach of contract claim in which the plaintiff argued the city was obligated to build it a stadium,” the release said.

The release said the dismissal came about because the team failed to pay more than half of the rent owed the city in 2010 and no rent in 2011.

Steven Boulton, an attorney for Grand Slam, argued that the ruling left plenty of room for the team to pursue its claims.

“The core of the case remains intact. The big thing is that the fraud and conspiracy claim against the mayor and Rogers has been upheld ,” Boulton said after the 37-page ruling was issued.

The stadium’s splashy groundbreaking celebration in 2009 promised a new “field of dreams” era of local minor league baseball, but the team played its 2010 season in a makeshift stadium at the site where the permanent one was to be built and never returned.

The 2011 season began with away games before players and managers quit because they weren’t being paid.

The Fielder’s organization is dormant, but it has not filed bankruptcy, and representatives have said that the team could be rebuilt and ready to go in 60 to 70 days. Movie actor Kevin Costner remains a part of the Grand Slam partnership.

When asked what happened to such a promising plan, Harrison said “nobody wants to go ahead and ask anyone at the state level whether they dropped the ball.”

He indicated that the city had relied on significant state funding and rent revenue from Grand Slam as the impetus to issue bonds, and could not do so when the money was not available.

He said the current baseball project in Kenosha at Route 50 and Sheridan Road was exactly the type of project Zion officials had hoped to see. That area is now home to the Kenosha Kingfish, who will play in the Northwoods League, a summer college baseball league for players hoping to get drafted by Major League Baseball.

Harrison said every time the judge in the civil case strikes down claims by Grand Slam against the city, himself and other defendants, Grand Slam responds by filing new claims “that are just as fictitious as the last.”

Bernie DiMeo, a spokesman for Grand Slam, said that as a point of law, the team would not stray from the truth in its lawsuit.

“We would never put anything in a complaint that wasn’t true,” he said

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