Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who has been a leader of the San Antonio MLS effort for several years, asked LaHood to investigate whether any criminal or civil laws were broken when, as he alleges, MLS "encouraged: the stadium deal in 2015, two years after Anthony Precourt's Precourt Sports Ventures purchased Columbus Crew SC with an out-clause allowing it to relocate the team to Austin.
Wolff's contention, as he raised on Friday in his letter to MLS commissioner Don Garber is that San Antonio was under the understanding that there would not be teams in both San Antonio and Austin -- 80 miles apart -- and it would have thought twice about entering into the stadium deal if it knew about the Austin clause. Wolff wants Garber to clarify San Antonio's status in the current expansion process.
From Wolff's letter to Garber:
“On November 2, 2015, Major League Soccer President Mark Abbott met with Bexar County Manager David Smith and me. 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. 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.
“Over the past two years, we have pursued a franchise by purchasing Toyota Field and submitting an application. 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. 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."
MLS's response to the media:
“Major League Soccer has received the letter from Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. We are in the process of reviewing the 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.”
That Wolff’s letter alleged that Precourt Sports Ventures has reached an agreement with the University of Texas for the Crew to play at 20,000-seat Myers Stadium in 2019 was disputed.
Toyota Field deal. Hartman launched the NASL Scorpions in 2012 and formed a non-profit organization that in 2013 opened 8,300-seat Toyota Field -- located on the San Antonio-Austin corridor -- adjacent to Morgan's Wonderland, the theme park for individuals with special needs whose opening was inspired by his daughter with cognitive and physical challenges, and the 75-acre STAR Soccer Complex.
The Scorpions were one of the best supported NASL teams and won Soccer Bowl 2014, but Hartman was always focused on Morgan's Wonderland, into which soccer moneys from the stadium were poured via Soccer for a Cause ($660,000 in the stadium's first year).
Hartman pushed for an MLS expansion team -- he even brought in potential Japanese investors to meet with local officials in 2014 -- but he was never likely going to be the principal owner. Later, the MLS expansion process became more wide-ranging with the current bidding by 12 cities, San Antonio among them, for four expansion spots.
In late 2015, Hartman struck a deal with Bexar County, the City of San Antonio and SS&E. Bexar County and the City of San Antonio each paid $9 million to buy Toyota Field and SS&E made a $3 million donation to Soccer for a Cause.
Since the goal of the parties was to land at MLS team, a "claw-back" clause was inserted into the deal. SS&E, which rented Toyota Field, agreed to pay the city and county $5 million if no MLS team moved into the facility.
To land an MLS team, Toyota Field would need to be expanded. Few concrete details about how that expansion would be funded have emerged this season.
In July, Wolff, who as county judge acts in effect as its chief administrator in addition to being its chief judicial officer, said San Antonio would be better placed for the third and fourth MLS expansion spots rather the first two scheduled to be decided in December.
San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg has also pushed for an MLS team, saying it was a priority for the city over a new AAA baseball team.
While the MLS expansion process remains very fluid and there is no timeline for deciding the third and fourth teams, San Antonio is not often mentioned as a top four pick. Garber last week singled out four MLS expansion prospects -- Cincinnati, Sacramento, Detroit and Nashville -- the same four cities he mentioned at the MLS All-Star Game in August.