Newark Mayor Slams Devils Owner

A long-simmering rent dispute between the New Jersey Devils and the city of Newark boiled over Wednesday with Mayor Cory A. Booker seizing on an independent arbitration panel’s ruling to blast the NHL team’s owner as a “Grade-A huckster” who reneged on promises to the city.

Standing in front of the Prudential Center arena, Booker criticized Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek for using what the mayor said was “legal jiujitsu” to convince the panel to grant the team $2.7 million per year in parking revenues.

The parking agreement was contained in a 2005 letter between the city and the team but was never formally approved, the city contends. Since the city opened the arena in October 2007, the Devils haven’t paid rent to Newark while the parking dispute dragged on.

Booker said his administration had no legal obligation to abide by the 2005 agreement. He said the matter should have been negotiated by the two sides and the resulting agreement ratified by the city council.

“This is a patent subversion of the democratic process,” he said.

The Newark Housing Authority owns the property and the Devils lease the space. The state Superior Court referred the dispute to an arbitration panel, and a three-person panel of the American Arbitration Association concluded in a ruling Tuesday that the city tried to “frustrate commitments made to the Devils by the prior administration.”

In addition to the ruling on parking revenue, the panel said the city owes the Devils $4.6 million that it must put into a capital fund for the team. The total owed by the city is more than $15 million, or more than the $14.7 million the Devils must pay in back rent, fees and other expenses.

In an uncharacteristic display of anger, Booker castigated Vanderbeek for what the mayor described as not following through on promises to fund job training programs, donate office space to nonprofits and build a community recreation center in the city.

“He came to this city with a mouthful of promises and a pocketful of lies,” Booker said. “He is a high-falutin, high-class huckster and hustler.”

Vanderbeek didn’t immediately return a phone message seeking comment Wednesday.

Devils Arena Entertainment, which operates and manages the arena, said in a statement: “We recognize it is hard for the mayor to accept a legal loss and understand what must be his frustration with his housing authority’s dubious decision to initiate this arbitration.”

The city contributed $210 million toward building the arena, paid for by the proceeds of a renegotiated lease with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for Newark Liberty International Airport property. The team provided $100 million.

The Devils played their first game in the Prudential Center, known as “The Rock,” in 2007 after playing at the nearby Izod Center in the Meadowlands since the 1982-83 season.

For the last two years, the New Jersey Nets have called the arena home while they await the completion of a new arena in Brooklyn. Seton Hall men’s basketball team also plays there.