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Slippery Ice

The Predators find themselves in a dispute with the city—and they're being represented by a Metro councilman



Let's get one thing straight: Chris Whitson has never been paid thousands of dollars by undercover FBI agents to advance a phony piece of legislation. At least not to our knowledge. But lately it looks like his daytime job and his other daytime job are coming dangerously close to treading on each other.

That's because he's both a Metro Council member and a lawyer who represents the Nashville Predators, the local NHL hockey franchise that's currently in the middle of a contract dispute with the city of Nashville. Details are sketchy, but according to Metro Law Director Karl Dean and Finance Director David Manning, it all has to do with the stated net worth of the Predators.

The 76-page operating agreement between Metro and Powers Management LLC stipulates that the hockey club must maintain a "minimum tangible net worth" amount greater than the minimum net worth amount prescribed by the agreement—or else find a third party to guarantee millions of dollars. At issue is the actual figure of the team's net worth, and whether the independent auditors who certified the numbers were sufficiently independent. Basically, this is a dispute over accounting methods.

"It's still kind of in a preliminary stage," says Manning, the finance director. "There's a little bit of dancing going on in terms of what a certification is and what a certification is not in the accounting world." Meaning, as far as we can tell, that the numbers may not be legitimate enough for Metro to accept.

"They turned in a document...that did not appear to be what the contract called for," says Dean, the legal director. "It's not certified and it doesn't contain all the information that's required." His office is reviewing the agreement and will develop a more formal legal position in the next couple of weeks, he says.

Both Dean and Manning call the current high-dollar dispute a collision of two (very boring) worlds: contract law and accounting.

More interesting, however, is Whitson's role in the situation. When asked by the Scene, Dean confirmed that Whitson and another attorney from his firm met with Metro Legal to discuss the dispute. Which at the very least looks bad. His job as an attorney in this situation is to protect the interests of his client; his job as a Council member is to protect the interests of taxpayers. Potentially, these are at odds.

Whitson could not be reached for comment late Friday afternoon, nor could anyone at his law firm, Sherrard and Roe. One Council colleague came to Whitson's defense, however, noting that he abstains from voting on legislation related to his client.

But he still negotiates on their behalf with Metro. Asked about Whitson's potential conflict of interest, Dean says he can only speak for the city. "We will represent the interest of the taxpayers and the Metropolitan Government regardless of who their lawyers are, and it's not going to sway us one way or another."

It is unclear how long Whitson has represented the Predators. But Channel 3 viewers may remember that in May 2004, Whitson and two other Council members sponsored a non-binding resolution to recognize and commend the Predators. "The excitement created by the success of the Nashville Predators has brought unprecedented unity to the Nashville community..." it proclaimed. It was civic celebration, to be sure. But the resolution could also be viewed as an ad for the hockey team—and moreover, one that bore the imprimatur of law.

Either way, with this season cancelled and the upcoming one looking fainter by the day, the Predators are facing larger troubles than a contract dispute with Metro government. Things could get worse for the club, economically speaking, which might cost Nashville its NHL franchise. And Chris Whitson a client.

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