OFFICIALS investigating Saints' Superdome contract

Thursday, May 24th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ A district attorney and the state attorney general are looking into why the Saints' Superdome contract has a lower penalty clause for breaking the lease _ by some $65 million _ than approved by lawmakers in 1993.

Lawmakers authorized former Gov. Edwin Edwards to negotiate the details of the lease with Saints owner Tom Benson. But the Legislature required a $90 million penalty that the team would have to pay for leaving the dome before the lease expires in 2017.

However, the deal reached between Edwards and Benson included a clause that lowers the penalty to $25 million if the team leaves after 2005.

``I'm not at all happy or satisfied. It sort of smells to me, quite frankly,'' said Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick. He said he would interview Benson and Edwards, possibly before a grand jury.

Both Edwards, who was convicted last year in a federal gambling corruption trial but remains free pending appeal, and Benson said the contract was never kept from public view and indicated they were disgusted that this would become an issue eight years later.

``To now suggest something this ludicrous is really mind-boggling and almost sickening,'' Edwards told WWL-AM. ``I guarantee you I can say without any fear of contradiction: nothing at all is going to come of this.''

The timing is no coincidence. The Saints have been asking for a new $450 million stadium by 2006 and rumors have been flying that Benson might like to move the team out of New Orleans if another city can offer a better deal.

State Rep. Jim Donelon, R-Metairie, whose amendment was meant to guarantee the $90 million penalty if the Saints left early, has been asking authorities to review how the lower-penalty clause ended up in the contract and to see if it violated the law.

Benson said the deal was approved by the state and that he was livid his name was brought into any type of investigation.

Team spokesman Greg Bensel told WVUE-TV that the team would leave it up to the lawyers.

``It was all public record,'' he said.