The Billionaire Next Door

Donald Watkins Is Made Of More Than Money

When Richard Arrington Jr., the first black mayor of Birmingham, Alabama, stepped down in 1999 after 20 years at the helm, Associated Press reporter Jay Reeves noted that the politician "has critics, both black and white...[who] accuse him of padding friends' pockets with city business."

Donald Watkins is among the friends those critics would have been sure to cite. From 1985 until 1999, the man who now wants to rescue the Minnesota Twins served as special counsel to Arrington, garnering millions in attorney's fees from the city and becoming the mayor's confidant and friend.

Yet Watkins's tenure as a political player in Birmingham remains largely opaque here in Minnesota. (He has been profiled elsewhere--most notably in a late-December Chicago Tribune piece by Michael Hirsley and a more recent story by the AP's Reeves; the latter is available on the Internet, through Minnesota Public Radio's and the Star Tribune's Web sites.) In part this is due to his predilection for privacy--Watkins has rebuffed attempts by journalists nationwide to home in on his leap from a reasonably lucrative law practice to a fortune reportedly in the $1.4 billion range.

The focus is understandable, given the gullible manner in which we greeted author Tom Clancy when he rode into town announcing that he was going to buy the Vikings--only to ride back out when it became evident that his wallet wasn't fat enough to fund the purchase. But money isn't the only interesting facet of Donald Watkins.

So while the local media continue to crunch on the numbers, here are five things worth knowing about the man who's angling to become one of this state's most prominent public figures:

1. He Plays the Media. In the summer of 1990, under pressure from civil-rights groups and advertisers, the Professional Golfers' Association threatened to move its prestigious PGA Championship tournament away from Shoal Creek because the country club, located outside Birmingham, had no black members. Watkins made headlines as one of a few local public figures to put forward their names as the club's potential first black member.

In 1991 Watkins represented Eric Ramsey, a former cornerback for the Auburn University Tigers who alleged that coaches and boosters violated NCAA rules by funneling him money. The kicker: Ramsey secretly tape-recorded conversations with alumni and coaches--including revered head coach Pat Dye, who'd presided over a gridiron dynasty at Auburn since the early Eighties. As the NCAA launched an investigation, Watkins began leaking tapes to the press a few at a time, attracting national attention. At one point he told the L.A. Times, "Ultimately, I think, the Eric Ramsey tapes will have the same impact on college athletics that the Rodney King videotape had on law enforcement." Watkins held on to the tapes that featured Dye until late December, when they were aired on 60 Minutes. Those tapes proved somewhat anticlimactic, but they did reveal that the coach knew of payoffs to Ramsey and that he helped arrange a $9,000 bank loan for the cornerback. Dye resigned the following year, and the university was placed on NCAA probation.

2. He Puts His Money Where His (Big) Mouth Is. Richard Arrington Jr. was seeking a fifth term in the fall of 1995. In the midst of the O.J. Simpson trial, Watkins bought an ad on local black radio stations warning that the "Mark Fuhrmans of Birmingham have put two handkerchief-head, weak-kneed Uncle Toms in the race [against Arrington]." The editorial page editor of the Birmingham News called the ad, with its reference to the infamous former L.A. police detective, "a racist, gutter-level attack." Arrington distanced himself from the stunt, saying it was unauthorized.

Six years later, as the Senate was preparing to vote on John Ashcroft's nomination for U.S. Attorney General, Watkins paid $43,000 for a half-page ad in the Washington Post, urging confirmation. "I thought Mr. Ashcroft was being trashed for no just reason," Watkins told the Associated Press. Ashcroft had come under intense criticism during Senate hearings for his views on civil rights. As Missouri's attorney general he'd worked to kill the state's voluntary-desegregation program and had been a consistent opponent of affirmative action. He'd accepted an honorary degree from Bob Jones University, a school that barred interracial dating. And, as a U.S. senator, he'd blocked the nominations of four African Americans then-Pres. Bill Clinton had tapped for federal posts.

3. He Doesn't Forget His Friends. During Watkins's 15 years as special counsel to Arrington, the city paid him a reported $10 million in attorney's fees. Six weeks after Arrington retired, the former mayor was tapped as interim director of Alabama State University's brand-new Center for Leadership and Public Policy. Salary: $72,000. Watkins, who served on the university's board of trustees for ten years beginning in 1991, headed the committee that created the center and hired Arrington. Today Arrington works for Watkins, helping out with the budding Twins deal. According to AP reporter Jay Reeves's recent Watkins profile, if Watkins buys the team, Arrington "is likely to be a consultant in personnel management."

4. He and Mayor Arrington Lived in Interesting Times. In 1989 real estate developer Robert Moussallem told Newsweek that U.S. Attorney Frank Donaldson had offered to go easy on federal bribery charges if he would agree to participate in a sting involving Arrington and other black Birmingham officials in connection with a zoning case. At one point Watkins and Arrington filed a federal Freedom of Information Act request and learned the FBI had an extensive file on the mayor dating back to 1971. "According to the FBI report, they had the mayor under constant surveillance [from 1984 to 1988]--bugged his business and private phones--just waiting for him to slip up," Watkins told the American Bar Association Journal in early 1992. "Since he has overwhelming public support, they have tried to knock him down by using the criminal justice system for their own political gains."

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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