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Sanders vs. Anschutz ... really

City Sage

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I've met quite a few millionaires and even a billionaire or two. Foolishly, I never asked any of them for a loan on easy terms, a cushy job or an insider stock tip. But hanging out with the seven-, eight-, nine- and 10-figure crowd, this stands out: They know how to fight.

Folks with a lot of money like to keep it, and they're quick to react when someone's trying to take it away. Conversely, if they see an opportunity to make a few million at the expense of one of their co-religionists, they'll take it.

Such fights generally play out behind the scenes. But when the big dogs snarl and snap at each other, the business press takes notice.

In New York, a half-dozen centimillionaires are quarreling over ownership of the Empire State Building. In Los Angeles, potential buyers of the Los Angeles Times include the ultra-conservative Koch brothers and prominent L.A. philanthropist/Democrat Eli Broad. If you're interested in such squabbles, check the Wall Street Journal.

But what about this story line: Colorado Springs' two best-known businessmen go after each other in a California courtroom in a civil suit of worldwide interest. At stake is literally billions of dollars.

In one corner: attorney Perry Sanders, who developed and owns the Mining Exchange Hotel. As personal attorney for Michael Jackson's mother, Katherine Jackson, Sanders is coordinating a team of attorneys representing Jackson in a wrongful death suit against entertainment giant AEG, aka Anschutz Entertainment Group. Jackson contends that AEG bears responsibility for the 2009 death of her son, caused by an overdose of an anesthetic administered to Jackson by Dr. Conrad Murray.

Murray, a cardiologist hired to care for Michael prior to his This Is It tour, was convicted of manslaughter and is serving a four-year prison sentence. Katherine Jackson's attorneys argue that AEG bears ultimate responsibility for the singer's death, since the company hired Murray, paying him $150,000 a month. If a jury finds AEG at fault, damages could run into the billions.

In the other corner: Philip Anschutz, who owns the Gazette, the Broadmoor and Anschutz Entertainment Group. The world's leading sports and entertainment business, AEG owns the Staples Center, controlling interest in the Los Angeles Kings hockey team, and the O2 arena in London (formerly the Millennium Dome). It also owns or controls another 100-plus event facilities.

CNN reports that as the trial opened, Sanders summarized part of Jackson's case. Arguing that revenue from This Is It and subsequent tours could have amounted to billions, Sanders said when tickets went on sale in March 2009, there was the "highest demand in the history of the world. No one has ever come close."

"There was so much demand, they filled 2 million seats in hours," Sanders said, quoting an e-mail that AEG Live CEO Randy Phillips sent to Anschutz.

Anschutz almost certainly won't attend the trial unless subpoenaed. He's busy pursuing an NFL franchise for his planned Los Angeles stadium. Win or lose, he'll keep on doing what he does best: turning billions into more billions.

And Sanders? Perry's no billionaire. He's a reasonably wealthy guy who loves a high-stakes game. He continues to represent the family of rap icon Biggie Smalls, whose 1997 murder remains officially unsolved. Commenting on the apparent reluctance of L.A. prosecutors to move forward, Sanders told L.A. Weekly a year ago: "Information is a one-way highway — which, of course, all victims, including my client, find a little bit frustrating. I think it's fair to say that this case is less unsolved than unprosecuted."

Sanders showed similar persistence in his struggle to make the old Mining Exchange building a world-class boutique hotel. Almost no one in the business community believed it could be done — but Sanders did it.

If he wins this case, his contingency fee might be in nine figures. Knowing Perry, he'd spend a chunk of it building something fabulous in Colorado Springs. Imagine a gleaming new high-rise soaring above our downtown, poetry in steel and glass, unwillingly financed by Anschutz. And imagine Anschutz taking his revenge as only developers can — by building a bigger and better high-rise! Finally, we'd have a real downtown.

Phil, Perry — you guys rock!

hazlehurst@csindy.com

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