SBJ/January 12 - 18, 2004/SBJ In Depth
Ex-Clinton aide brings political tactics to sports
Published January 12, 2004
Observers say Mark Fabiani (right, with Gen. Wesley Clark) takes a cool, businesslike approach to his projects.
Political heavyweight Mark Fabiani is increasingly becoming the force behind the scenes in major, controversial sports business stories.
Fabiani, who headed up crisis management for President Clinton on the Whitewater investigation in the mid-1990s and was Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign communications director, is probably best known in the sports world as special counsel to the San Diego Chargers.
As spokesman for the team on all matters relating to its contentious renegotiation of its stadium lease with the city, Fabiani appears as a regular guest on San Diego radio and television shows and is widely quoted in newspapers on the issue.
But the Chargers are not the only sports clients of Fabiani & Lehane LLC, a public relations and consulting firm that Fabiani runs with Chris Lehane, a lawyer he worked with in the Clinton White House.
Fabiani has been retained by the NHL as that league is gearing up for what is expected to be the nastiest labor battle in decades. He represented Big East football conference schools that sued the Atlantic Coast Conference last year. In the late 1990s, Fabiani represented Michael Ovitz in the former Hollywood agent's quest to get the 32nd NFL franchise, which eventually went to Houston billionaire Bob McNair.
Fabiani advised Gen. Wesley Clark on a presidential bid, but Lehane has taken over advising that campaign. Fabiani is now focused on working both publicly and privately for the firm's sports and business clients.
In many cases, Fabiani gives public relations advice behind the scenes to sports clients that already have spokespeople. That may be why he won't name the four or five other sports clients he has worked for in the last year. He said the Chargers' assignment is different from the firm's other work in that it is very public and the team wants Fabiani to act as a spokesman.
Fabiani won't reveal the fees Fabiani & Lehane charges for advice. He said the firm won't accept just any client. "We turned down Enron."
Fabiani began his public career in 1985 in the office of longtime Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley a few years after graduating cum laude from Harvard Law School. He became deputy mayor and chief of staff to Bradley in 1989, a position he held until 1993.
His first major sports deal was to find a way to finance privately the renovation of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the former Los Angeles Raiders. Fabiani spearheaded a deal with Spectacor Limited Partners in 1990 that would have kept the Raiders in Los Angeles for 20 years. But that deal fell apart in 1992, when Spectacor pulled out, citing the then severe recession in the Los Angeles economy.
"I think Mark has the ability to inspire a tremendous amount of confidence in people," said Raiders CEO Amy Trask. "So it comes as no surprise to me that individuals and organizations would turn to him for assistance in sensitive matters."
Jeffrey Mishkin, attorney at Skadden Arps, who represented the Big East schools in their lawsuit against the ACC, hired Fabiani to deal with the press. "If there is a case where there is likely to be significant press interest, there is no one better to work with than Mark Fabiani," said Mishkin, former NBA chief legal officer.
After Bradley retired in 1993, Fabiani went to Washington, D.C. He became a national public figure in the mid-1990s when he served as special counsel to Clinton on Whitewater and other scandals.
Fabiani first worked in the Housing and Urban Development Department, but was recruited to handle press and public relations of Whitewater about a year later. Fabiani persuaded the White House to work more proactively with reporters covering the story.
Fabiani hired Lehane, a fellow Harvard Law graduate, to help deal with the press and the public on the investigation. "What we did is open up all the Whitewater files and give them to the reporters," Fabiani said.
Lehane said that what Fabiani did in that situation, and others since then, was "get ahead of the story." Fabiani would have the White House put out information publicly that was being investigated by Congress or by special prosecutor Ken Starr. "He was able ... to explain the facts on his terms or the White House's terms and thus, was able to define or frame the issue," Lehane said.
Fabiani left the Clinton White House and formed La Jolla, Calif.-based Fabiani & Lehane in 1997, while taking time off to work for Gore's presidential bid in 2000.
"Generally, we believe that the press should be engaged in the issue, no matter what the issue," Fabiani said. "We operate from the general presumption that you are better off, even if you have a problem, you are better off being open about it.
"The biggest mistake is that people fear the press and when the press calls, they go into a shell. They don't call [reporters] back or they take a long time before doing it and when they do, they are very terse. To us, that is playing to lose."
Fabiani's experience in Washington may have given him an upper hand in dealing with the Chargers' situation, some observers say.
T.J. Simers, acerbic sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, wrote recently that Fabiani is a "trained spin expert" who had successfully upset and confused the "small town folks" of San Diego. "It has been fun to watch Fabiani play the rubes," Simers wrote.
Since the Chargers issued a notice to the city last March that could result in the team leaving town if it is unsuccessful in renegotiating its stadium lease, both the team and Fabiani have taken some heat from public officials.
In a recent public statement, San Diego City Attorney Casey Gwinn said: "The picture that is being presented by Mr. Fabiani and the Chargers is not a complete picture of the issues that are before the taxpayers and the public. At best, the statements that have been made by Mr. Fabiani are misleading."
But Dan Shea, president of the San Diego Fans, Taxpayers and Business Alliance for NFL Football, said it is the elected officials of San Diego who are trying to spin the story.
Fabiani takes a calm, businesslike approach, despite being attacked by politicians, Shea said. "He doesn't get rattled by much of anything. He doesn't take it personally when people get emotional and that would include [Chargers] task force members and city council members."
Phil LaVelle, who covers politics for the San Diego Union Tribune, said Fabiani "comes from the ultimate political arena and he comes to San Diego and plays a very deep political game that sometimes leaves his adversaries a little confused."
When the Chargers filed a lawsuit against the city of San Diego a few days before Thanksgiving last year, the San Diego mayor and members of the city council held emotional news conferences denouncing the team's action. "You don't see Fabiani doing anything like that," LaVelle said.
"He is very sophisticated," LaVelle said. "He's not cold, but he seems to be unflappable."
Lehane said Fabiani is a master at "studied nonchalance." Lehane remembers that during their Whitewater days, Fabiani once left a message on his home answering machine at 4 a.m.
"He said, 'Hey, this is Mark and I want to let you know I had been kidnapped, but it is not a big deal and let's not make it a big deal and I will fill you in later.'"
Lehane said he went back to sleep, assuming the call was one of Fabiani's practical jokes, until he got a call later that morning from a reporter from The Washington Post who told him his partner had been abducted by two men at gunpoint.
Ultimately, Fabiani persuaded them to let him go. And to return his Rolex watch.