The Billionaire Next Door

Donald Watkins Is Made Of More Than Money

After Arrington retired in 1999, questions arose about a five-year-old land deal. According to an Associated Press story, the city had paid a friend of the mayor nearly $900,000 for a 3.7-acre plot in 1994, but the city council members who approved the deal were under the impression that the purchase was for 30 acres. The city had already sold off part of the parcel for $127,250 and was poised to sell off most of what remained for $80,000 when a city council member spied the discrepancy. The same AP story noted that the city council was trying to recover $870,000 from a company that ran the Alabama State Fairgrounds while Arrington was mayor, that the firm had been paid an additional $2.2 million too much under its contract, and that the mayor had ignored requests that the company be audited.

5. Attorney's Fees, Attorney's Fees. In late 1999 a federal jury awarded a former Birmingham city worker $125,000 and gave him back his old job in connection with a whistleblower suit. The city was ordered to pay the plaintiff's attorneys' fees of $330,883. Watkins, meanwhile, pocketed $1,021,486 for his losing effort. One of the plaintiff's attorneys, Gayle Gear, told the Associated Press that the city could have saved a lot of money by settling out of court. Watkins retorted that a settlement would have cost the city $1.5 million--ironically (see no. 1 above), because the plaintiff had secretly recorded tapes that bolstered his claims. Countered Gear: "The only one who ever wanted $1 million in this case was Donald, who kept this case going because he got paid regardless of the outcome." Today Gear, who confronted Watkins in another high-profile whistleblower suit (which she won at trial but lost on appeal), says of the experience, "The millions never intimidated me, it made me sad--the city paying millions for the kind of things they paid millions for, when there were serious needs. Because the City of Birmingham is a very poor city."

 

There's one question about Donald Watkins's bid for the Twins that no one around here is asking: Why would Major League Baseball want to have anything to do with a man who is very loudly expressing his desire to build a stadium with solely private funding? Commissioner Bud Selig's rationale for eliminating two clubs is rooted in the assertion that baseball is suffering from dire economic problems, yet here is a man who's openly vying to get into the sport as an investment, contending that he expects to make money.

Perhaps Selig and the owners really are open to Watkins's vision. Perhaps they think he'll fall flat on his face. More likely, both parties aren't saying what they've really got in mind.

 

Headfirst will appear every other week. E-mail the author at tfinkel@citypages.com.

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