Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff has requested an investigation by District Attorney Nico LaHood into whether Major League Soccer officials misled the County when they encouraged it to purchase Toyota Field in 2015 and pursue a bid for an MLS expansion franchise.
Wolff disclosed the request in a letter sent Friday to MLS Commissioner Don Garber in which he asked for clarification on the status of San Antonio's bid for one of four expansion franchises for which the city and county have spent several years laying the groundwork.
In November 2015, Wolff and Bexar County Manager David Smith met with MLS President Mark Abbott to discuss the county's plan to invest in Toyota Field, then owned by local businessman Gordon Hartman, whose North American Soccer League San Antonio Scorpions team played there.
"We discussed our proposed plan to purchase Toyota Field and made it clear that we would only purchase Toyota Field if there was a clear path toward a Major League Soccer expansion franchise in San Antonio," Wolff's letter states.
"Mr. Abbott encouraged us to move forward and submit a bid. We were also told that Major League Soccer would not establish franchises in both Austin and San Antonio."
The city's chances to land a team were cast into doubt recently when Anthony Precourt, owner of the MLS' Columbus Crew, announced that he was looking at relocating his team to Austin if the team wasn't able to secure a new downtown stadium. The news clearly took city and county officials by surprise.
"It has been widely reported that Mr. Precourt, whom you appointed to the Major
League Soccer expansion selection committee, obtained a legal right to relocate the Columbus Crew to Austin when he purchased the franchise in 2013," Wolff's letter stated. "If these reports are accurate, this presents a clear conflict of interest. Had Bexar County officials been aware of such a right, we would not have invested in Toyota Field."
Wolff stated that local officials recently learned that Precourt made an agreement with the University of Texas to use its facilities for Crew in 2019.
On Monday, an MLS official issued a statement saying that the league was reviewing Wolff's letter and preparing a formal response.
"Although that review is not yet complete, we strongly disagree with Judge Wolff’s assertion that we misled either him or any public official about the prospects for San Antonio acquiring an MLS expansion team," stated MLS Dan Courtemanche, the league's executive vice president of communications.
The league also stated that Precourt was no longer a member of the expansion selection committee.
In his letter to the league, Wolff stated he is still committed to bringing MLS soccer to San Antonio, and asks Garber for a prompt response as to the status of the city's bid. In the meantime, Wolff is waiting for LaHood's report into the matter. Speaking to the Rivard Report on Monday, Wolff said it was possible that the report could lead to legal action.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg released a statement Monday that said the City's attorney also is looking into the matter.
"While it is clear that the market, fans and bid team make San Antonio the most compelling case for MLS expansion, we need to know all of the facts about the situation," Nirenberg stated. "In response to the recent news stories regarding the potential relocation of the MLS team, Columbus Crew, from Ohio to Austin, I have asked the City Attorney and staff to review the matter and assess its potential impact to the City, as well as the local bid for an MLS team."
The City and County governments split the $18 million cost for Toyota Field, making the County's investment around $9 million. Spurs Sports and Entertainment, which owns the stadium's United Soccer League tenant, San Antonio FC, also paid $3 million for a 20-year lease agreement for use of the field.
MLS currently has 22 teams, including the Columbus team. San Antonio is one of 12 cities vying for expansion franchises. The first two expansion sites were to be selected by the end of the year with teams beginning play in 2020.