By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - Weeks after hedge fund manager Chris Hansen lost a bid to move the Sacramento Kings NBA basketball team to Seattle, he made an undisclosed donation to a group trying to defeat plans to build a new arena for the team in California, officials said on Friday.
Hansen had been trying for months to buy the team from its former owners and move it to Seattle to replace that city's own lost team, the SuperSonics. In January, he made a deal to buy the Kings from the family of George Maloof, longtime owners who had ongoing differences with the city over an arena.
But Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson quickly put together a group of California investors who made their own offer for the team, backing it up with intensive lobbying of the NBA to keep the Kings in Sacramento.
In May, the league sided with Johnson, saying the team should stay in the California capital, and the Maloofs then sold to the group Johnson had put together, headed by Silicon Valley executive Vivek Ranadive.
About four weeks later, Hansen, through the law firm Loeb & Loeb, made a wire transfer of $80,000 to a political consulting firm, which failed to disclose that he was the donor, the chairwoman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission said on Friday.
The commission, an independent, bipartisan body set up by California voters to police campaign contributions and ethics, said the money was used to gather signatures for a ballot initiative aimed at defeating the planned new arena for the Kings.
The commission sued Loeb & Loeb to find out who the donor was, and Hansen came forward to say he was the source of the money, Ann Ravel, the commission chairwoman, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
Because Hansen came forward, the lawsuit will be withdrawn, Ravel said. He also agreed to pay a penalty, which Ravel said would be modest. A spokesman for the commission said the final amount of the penalty was still being calculated.
In a statement released by email, Hansen called the donation "a mistake I regret."
After competition to his bid arose from the group the mayor put together, Hansen said, he engaged Loeb & Loeb "to canvas the various opposition groups to gain an understanding of their efforts and the prospects of their success."
The law firm approached him with a request for a donation from one of the groups, and he agreed, Hansen wrote. It was not clear whether the money was used to benefit a particular opposition group because the lawsuit says it was spent directly by the political consulting firm.
"While I'm sure everyone can appreciate how easy it is to get caught up (in) the heat of battle, with the benefit of hindsight, this is clearly a decision I regret," Hansen wrote. "I wish the city of Sacramento and Kings fans the best in their efforts and they have my commitment not to have any involvement in their arena efforts in the future."
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)