NEW YORK — Weeks ago, it seemed preposterous that Mayor Bill de Blasio would rather continue fielding questions about his role in the Mets sale than direct all of his energy on keeping his residents safe amid the coronavirus pandemic. But here we are.
De Blasio responded Thursday to the latest inquiries about his office grandstanding and dragging its feet on the signing over of a Citi Field lease transfer that was expected to be just a formality. De Blasio said Thursday he spoke to Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred to inform him that his office has a “legal responsibility” and it is “pursuing it and doing due diligence.”
The mayor plays a role in the Mets transfer of power from the Wilpons and Katz families to hedge-fund billionaire Steve Cohen because Citi Field is on land that is owned by the city.
“Some folks are trying to ascribe it to personal feelings — it’s not,” de Blasio said during his Thursday morning press conference. “It’s a legal responsibility that we have to undertake appropriately. That’s what this is all about.”
De Blasio is referring to a Wednesday night report that claimed the mayor is “trying to kill” the Mets sale to Cohen. The report also stated de Blasio “opposed the idea of a hedge-fund billionaire buying a local team” and would be using his power to prevent the sale from being finalized.
The mayor’s spokesperson, Bill Neidhardt, said that report was false in a tweet Wednesday. Neidhardt confirmed to the Daily News on Thursday that de Blasio reached out to Manfred to “tell him about the City’s process for reviewing incredibly valuable leases.” Neidhardt’s remarks match up with what de Blasio said publicly in his Thursday morning press conference.
MLB owners are expected to vote Friday on Cohen becoming sole majority owner of the Mets. Cohen will be operationally restricted if de Blasio does not sign over the lease transfer, regardless of whether he is approved by the league. The hedge-fund maven is expected to garner at least 22 of 29 votes to officially be approved by MLB.
A person familiar with the situation expects de Blasio to sign over the lease transfer Friday, or shortly after Cohen is approved by the league.
“It’s coming close to completion,” de Blasio told reporters Thursday. “It is winding down. I’m not going to give you an exact day or hour, but it will be very soon.”
The holdup from de Blasio’s office relates to a provision in the Citi Field lease which says the mayor can interfere with the sale if the prospective owner is a “prohibited person.” That term is defined as “any person that has been convicted in a criminal proceeding for a felony or any crime involving moral turpitude.”
Technically, Cohen has never been convicted or charged of a crime.
His former hedge fund, SAC Capital Advisors, agreed to plead guilty in 2013 to criminal insider-trading charges and paid a record $1.8 billion fine. Cohen was barred from managing money for clients for two years from 2016-18 as a result of a civil suit with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
“The City has no legal grounds to block the sale and the Mayor would also do well not to interfere with matters of federal law,” attorney and St. John’s University business law professor Anthony M. Sabino told the Daily News. “Whatever Cohen’s recent entanglements with the regulators were, those were purely federal matters with the Securities and Exchange Commission. No City laws were ever at issue, and the City has no jurisdiction over how Cohen’s firm conducted itself on Wall Street.”
Though de Blasio said his role in the Mets sale is legal, not personal, the mayor has a relationship with the Wilpons. The very last donors to de Blasio’s failed presidential campaign were executives in Sterling Equities, including Richard Wilpon and Saul Katz, the president of the Mets, and several people connected to them, according to a New York Times report. Sterling Equities also received a personal solicitation from the mayor in 2019.
The Wilpons and Katz families are set to receive a record $2.4 billion payout once the transfer of power to Cohen is complete. The deal would be the highest price ever paid for a North American sports team.
Cohen is in a hurry to get approval from MLB and de Blasio so he can get to work on the Mets. Once the World Series ended Tuesday, 11 Mets officially became free agents Wednesday. The club has until Sunday at 5 p.m. to make roster decisions, like tendering Marcus Stroman’s qualifying offer and exercising player options.
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