Baltimore's NFL expansion committee is hopeful it can persuade Alfred Lerner, a minority owner of the Cleveland Browns, to become the city's lead investor over two existing ownership groups, sources said yesterday.
Uncertain at this point, however, is whether Gov. William Donald Schaefer publicly would endorse Lerner as the owner of choice before the league selects its second expansion city at a meeting near Chicago Nov. 30.
Lerner, chairman of MNC Financial Inc. until its sale this year to NationsBank, has been reluctant to join the expansion sweepstakes. But it is believed he may be enticed by the promise of support from Schaefer.
Lerner has not returned calls to his Cleveland office.
Asked whether his partner was considering joining the Baltimore expansion effort, Browns owner Art Modell said: "It would be inappropriate for me to comment either way. Whatever has to be said has to come from Al Lerner."
If Lerner steps up as the city's third ownership group, he could supplant two groups that have worked two years to bring the NFL back to Baltimore. Those groups are headed by Baltimore native Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, chairman of Joppa-based Merry-Go-Round Enterprises, and Malcolm Glazer, a Florida-based investor. Speculation has grown in the past month that neither group can gather enough support among NFL owners to be voted in with a Baltimore team.
Unlike Weinglass or Glazer, Lerner already is familiar to NFL owners.
Schaefer met yesterday with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Herbert J. Belgrad, chairman of the Maryland Stadium Authority. Later, he was noncommittal about ownership changes in Baltimore's application. But he said there was nothing that needed to be altered in the city's financial package.
"Everything in our package, our presentation, what we offered is the best in the league," he said.
"The only thing I know is by noon Monday, we'll know who's filed with the league."
The NFL established a deadline of noon Monday to make any changes in ownership. League spokesman Greg Aiello said, NTC however, that the deadline did not preclude the possibility of selecting an owner after the process is completed Nov. 30.
"We still reserve the right to select the city without selecting the -- ownership group," Aiello said. "No changes are allowed between the 15th and the 30th. Can we pick an owner who was not part of the process? Yes. That's not a change [in policy]; that's how it's been."
Belgrad said the Baltimore expansion committee would not endorse anyone before Monday's deadline, if it happens at all.
Two members of the Weinglass group vented their frustration over the ownership speculation.
"Obviously, our money is not good enough for football," said John Paterakis, head of H&S; Bakery. "None of us [who joined Weinglass] wanted to get involved in football. But I was told by the governor a couple of years ago to get involved. Now, I'm in there, and they want to get someone from California or Cleveland. Where is the local ownership? It's so confusing.
"The big mystery is, why doesn't the governor decide whether he wants Boogie, whether he wants Glazer -- or whether he wants neither one -- and tell them? Let them get out of the race."
Weinglass said he was frustrated over the lack of support he has received at home. He said he met with commissioner Paul Tagliabue for 90 minutes a week ago and received "nothing but compliments."
"The whole thing has been the biggest fiasco I've ever been involved with," he said. "It's a political game that Lenny 'Boogie' Weinglass has never seen before. And I've been in big business.
"The thing that really bothers me is, it's fine if they want to bring in another party. [But] maybe I want to be involved. Everything is so secretive. That's the part that is wrong. To be treated this way . . . I regret the whole thing.
"I feel like I'm being made a scapegoat."
Schaefer denied that Weinglass was a scapegoat for the city's failure to deliver an expansion team Oct. 26, when NFL owners unanimously awarded the league's 29th franchise to Charlotte, N.C., but deferred a decision on the second city. "Nobody's a scapegoat," Schaefer said.
Asked if he felt Weinglass had a chance to get the franchise, Schaefer said: "I don't know. I honestly don't know. The league makes the decision."
Schaefer sighed, then put his hands to his face. "He's not being a scapegoat. He just wants it so bad," he said.
This week, St. Louis, favored to get the second expansion team, had its ownership picture muddled with news that beer distributor Jerry Clinton had re-entered the race. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Clinton, who pulled out Oct. 25, is seeking new investors for the St. Louis NFL Partnership Group. Francis W. Murray is also a member of that group, and is independently seeking investors for himself, as well. L. Stanley Kroenke, a Columbia, Mo.-based businessman, heads another group.
Baltimore's ownership picture has grown hazy in recent weeks. Since the Oct. 26 meeting near Chicago, the city's organizers have said they were open to altering the application, citing possible changes in ownership. In addition to Lerner, names that surfaced include Jeffrey Lurie, a Hollywood movie producer; Robert McNair, a Houston businessman; and most recently, Frank Perdue, who runs Perdue Farms Inc., one of the nation's largest privately held companies.
Perdue, who lives in Salisbury, issued a statement through his New York public relations firm yesterday. It read: "I was a 20-year season-ticket holder with the Baltimore Colts. If there is something I can do to help the governor bring a professional football team back to Maryland, I will. However, at the present time, I am not affiliated with any group."
Perdue is not expected to become a lead investor, though. Belgrad said he supplied Perdue with financial information about the team, "and it became obvious that the dollars we're talking about weren't the dollars he had in mind."
McNair said that the NFL knew of his interest in Baltimore, but he has not had any contact with organizers here for several weeks. "I would want to be welcomed in, rather than barging in," he said.
Lurie, who was in New York yesterday, has not returned calls.
Schaefer said he and Schmoke will travel to Chicago for the vote. "I think the presence of the governor at the Nov. 30 meeting is important, symbolically important," he said.