Our Hero

The most powerful man in Phoenix explains why he's just a regular guy

Colangelo's concept of "fair" is demonstrably sweeping and unpredictable.
And thus is a roomful of sports reporters transformed into a bunch of soft-pedalers who only want to know when Bank One Ballpark's retractable roof will be open.

The threat of lost access may be the smaller part of some reporters' fear of Colangelo, however. Those who work for Central Newspapers--which publishes the Republic and the Arizona Business Gazette--must also deal with their employer's conflict of interest. Central Newspapers owns part of the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Colangelo's friendship with Chip Weil, president and CEO of Central Newspapers, is well-known.

Individual reporters deny they are told to go light on Colangelo by anyone other than Colangelo. In Sunday's "Reader's Advocate" column, Richard De Uriarte went to great lengths to deny that executives pressure or influence reporters covering Colangelo and his enterprises. But the nature of the pressure brought to bear on the Republic by Colangelo's organizations is clearly implicated in a 1996 letter to John Oppedahl, publisher of the Republic, from Richard Dozer, president of the Arizona Diamondbacks (whose late father was once a sportswriter for the Phoenix Gazette). Leaked to and published by New Times last year, the letter reveals a shocking expectation of favoritism on Dozer's part. Dozer made unreasonable demands with such confidence that his letter can be interpreted as part of an ongoing dialogue.

Dozer wrote to Oppedahl to complain about a news story that proffered this thesis: The City of Phoenix is likely to receive only a small percentage of the $128 million in shared profits promised by the Phoenix Suns during the America West Arena negotiations, primarily because profit-sharing payments to the city will increase gradually over the next 40 years, with 81 percent of the money to be paid in the final 10 years of the Suns' contract. The Republic reporters pointed out that there is no guarantee the facility would last 40 years, since few arenas live past 30.

By most accounts, it wasn't a negative article. Nonetheless, it apparently wasn't positive enough to suit Dozer, one of Colangelo's top executives. He wrote that the reporters had omitted a key fact: that in '94, Colangelo had voluntarily renegotiated the arena deal in favor of the city, significantly increasing its portion of profit-sharing after realizing that the original deal had been poorly estimated by the city and the Suns' consultants.

This was hardly the point of the story, which was that with 81 percent of the city's payments delayed past the date the arena was likely to be used, the city was unlikely to see much of what was owed, no matter the total. Nonetheless, Dozer wrote that he believed mention of Colangelo's generous renegotiation had been omitted "intentionally."

"Also, I think it's very important to stress in an article like this that the Arena was funded by [car] rental and bed taxes," Dozer advised Oppedahl.

Countless letters of complaint are received by countless newspaper executives every year (although these letters are usually addressed to an editor, not the publisher). The most demanding of these are usually written by lawyers and involve libel. These letters commonly demand a correction or retraction.

But libel lawyers are no match for Dozer, who also wanted action. Not a simple "rebuttal," though (he probably meant "retraction," since papers so rarely rebut their own stories), but a series of assurances. He asked that columnist Montini be "headed off" from writing a column about the story. (He never wrote one.) He asked that any letters to the editor critical of the arena deal, received as a result of the story, not be published "because, once again, they weren't based on the whole story." And finally, he wrote, "We believe there might be a time for an editorial written by one of your writers about the solid benefits of the Arena and how great of a deal it turned out to be . . ."

Dozer's letter was a recapitulation of a phone conversation already held with Oppedahl, and was familiar in its tone.

Perhaps it represented Colangelo's view of "fair" media coverage.
Colangelo's tirades and attempts to mold coverage go beyond reporters to their sources, according to one account.

Janice Goldstein is executive director of the Arizona Trial Lawyers' Association, which bills itself as representing consumers. She says Colangelo phoned her in mid-February and threatened her.

Colangelo says he did no such thing and that Goldstein, in her zeal to undo legislation she opposes, is "using" him.

Goldstein's organization has been working at the Legislature to defeat the so-called "baseball-limited immunity bill," which would make it impossible for fans to sue if they were injured at a ballpark. In an article by Republic reporter Mike McCloy, she branded the legislation the "Colangelo Protection Act." She says that about 10 days after that article was published, Colangelo phoned her to ask why she thought the bill was designed to protect him.

"I said, 'The first sentence in the bill says, "The owner of a baseball team cannot be held liable," and you are one,'" Goldstein says. "I said, 'There is not one person at the Legislature who does not think this bill is about you.'"

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