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Divorce settlement heightens prospect of a Frank McCourt-Bud Selig showdown over Dodgers

Frank and Jamie McCourt reach a divorce settlement that requires two key decisions to go Frank McCourt's way if he is to keep ownership of the Dodgers. Approval of the Fox TV contract by Major League Baseball is one of them, and that's seen as unlikely.

June 17, 2011|By Bill Shaikin
  • Frank McCourt leaves a news conference outside Superior Court in downtown Los Angeles after Judge Scott Gordon announced that Frank and Jamie McCourt had reached a divorce agreement contingent upon future rulings.
Frank McCourt leaves a news conference outside Superior Court in downtown… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

Frank and Jamie McCourt have reached a settlement that does not settle the question that has troubled Dodgers fans during a divorce battle that has lasted nearly two years: Who owns the team?

The agreement reached Friday requires Frank McCourt to clear two significant hurdles in order to maintain ownership of Los Angeles' cherished ballclub. The commissioner of baseball has to approve a long-term television contract between the Dodgers and Fox, and a judge has to rule that the team is the sole property of McCourt.

The settlement becomes "null and void" if Commissioner Bud Selig vetoes the television contract — and he is likely to do so, according to two people familiar with the matter but not authorized to discuss it.

Photos: The Dodgers and the McCourts

Dennis Wasser, the attorney for Jamie McCourt, said he believed Selig would decide promptly whether to approve the Fox deal.

"It is either yes or no," Wasser said. "We should know by Monday or Tuesday."

With a yes, the McCourts would proceed to a one-day trial on Aug. 4, to determine whether the team belongs solely to Frank McCourt.

If the judge instead rules the Dodgers are community property, the settlement says the team "shall be sold." The sale would include the team, the stadium and the surrounding parking lots, with an estimated value of close to $1 billion, and the McCourts would split the proceeds 50-50.

If Frank McCourt is declared sole owner, Jamie McCourt would receive $100 million, the couple's seven luxury homes and indemnity from any tax liability.

MLB spokesman Pat Courtney said the league had no comment. Lawyers representing the commissioner's office were reviewing the settlement documents Friday.

Selig has appointed a monitor to oversee the Dodgers' day-to-day operation and ordered an investigation of the club's finances. That examination is expected to conclude this month.

Frank McCourt has lobbied Selig to ratify the Fox television contract for months, and the Dodgers have scrambled to make payroll without the funds McCourt anticipated from the deal. With Jamie McCourt waiving her right to challenge the deal as part of the settlement, Frank McCourt said Friday that he expects prompt approval.

"MLB has taken the position that, before they approved the transaction, they wanted to see either a settlement of the divorce, or Jamie's consent, or an order from the judge," McCourt said. "Today, they received all three. I fully expect that they will be good to their word, and they'll approve the transaction in a timely way."

In his order, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Scott Gordon wrote that the Fox contract "is in the best interests of the Los Angeles Dodgers and should be consummated immediately." However, Gordon's order is not binding upon Selig, according to Lynn Soodik, a Santa Monica family law attorney who has followed the McCourt case closely.

If Selig rejects the deal, Soodik said the judge's order could help McCourt should he file a lawsuit against the commissioner.

The team's June 30 payroll is estimated to be close to $30 million, including a steep deferred payment to former Dodgers slugger Manny Ramirez, but McCourt said Friday he could meet that financial commitment even without money from Fox. If he fails to make payroll, Selig could take control of the team, have the league make good on its obligations, and put the Dodgers up for sale.

The McCourts introduced themselves to Los Angeles as the new owners of the Dodgers in 2004. They filed for divorce 20 months ago, one week shy of what would have been their 30th anniversary.

After an 11-day trial last year, Gordon threw out a marital property agreement that would have provided Frank McCourt with sole ownership of the Dodgers.

Jamie McCourt on Friday characterized the settlement as "a step toward" resolving the divorce.

"The most important thing for me is to have resolution," she said. "I think it's the most important thing for my family, my children, certainly the fans, and certainly baseball. The quicker there is resolution, which is what we have been trying to accomplish for the past two years, the better."

Frank McCourt apologized to fans for the protracted divorce process and said he would characterize himself as relieved rather than happy.

"When you're talking about a very long marriage and going through all that we went through to get this wrapped up, you're not going to sit here and say you're happy. It is not a happy thing. But it is a feeling of relief.

"I am pleased. I am pleased for everybody, from the community to my children to the fans to me — and to Jamie, quite frankly — that we can put this phase of our lives behind us and we can go rebuild our lives."

Photos: The Dodgers and the McCourts

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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