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MASN says documents show Major League Baseball's conflict of interest

Orioles attorneys allege baseball's TV rights fee process was full of “myriad and breathtaking conflicts

The Mid-Atlantic Sports Network says in new court filings it has uncovered further evidence that Major League Baseball tainted the arbitration process to resolve a lingering television-rights fee dispute between the Baltimore Orioles and the Washington Nationals.

MASN, which is majority-owned by the Orioles and broadcasts both teams' games, previously alleged in a New York court that the same outside counsel — New York-based law firm Proskauer Rose — represented the Nationals, Major League Baseball and three teams whose owners were on a panel of arbitrators deciding the case. MASN likened the circumstance to a lawyer representing a client "before a tribunal wherein the lawyer also represents the judge and jury."

At issue is how much more money MASN must pay the Nationals for the rights to broadcast the team's games.

In a new filing with the New York Supreme Court this week, MASN says documents obtained during the discovery process show that Proskauer "is even more intertwined with MLB than was previously revealed."

On 74 occasions during the last decade, MASN lawyers said, the law firm represented Major League Baseball or its entities. "Forty-nine of these engagements occurred during the (MASN) arbitration," the lawyers said.

They said Proskauer also represented commissioner Bud Selig on the extension of his employment contract with Major League Baseball.

MASN said it learned details of Proskauer's representation during the discovery process.

Major League Baseball has argued that the arbitration was fair and that the law firm has said its representation did not imply bias. "Proskauer in no way corrupted the [arbitration] proceeding," Proskauer attorney Bradley Ruskin said in a recent court affirmation.

"The MASN and Orioles' allegations distort and/or ignore the factual record, which actually suggests that MASN and the Orioles chose late in the process to protest Proskauer's involvement as a tactical effort to manufacture a position to challenge any award MASN and/or the Orioles did not like," Ruskin continued.

But the Orioles — who are a party to the case along with MASN — argued in a brief this week that Major League Baseball "chose the Nationals when it allowed Proskauer to represent them despite myriad and breathtaking conflicts of interest."

The arbitration panel was composed of the owners of the New York Mets, Pittsburgh Pirates and Tampa Bay Rays.

MASN argues that the panel applied the wrong standards in deciding that the Nationals should receive about $60 million in TV rights fees per year. Since MASN now pays $40 million annually, the network would owe the Washington team about $20 million a year, an amount it says would hobble the network.

MASN is asking the court to vacate the panel's decision and send the case to independent arbitrators.

Procedures for determining TV rights fees were brokered by the league when the Nationals, formerly the Montreal Expos, moved to Washington in 2005. Major League Baseball structured the agreement to benefit the Orioles — giving the team a bigger ownership stake in MASN and a proportionately larger share of the profits — after the team argued that the Nationals' arrival in the region deprived Baltimore of a third of its market.

The Nationals have argued since that they are locked into an agreement that deprives the team of the fair market value for its TV rights.

Final arguments in the case are scheduled for May 18.

jebarker@baltsun.com

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