Houston Astros Owner Has Controversial Past, Courts Public Subsidies for Palm Beach Stadium

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We know the city fathers and mothers of Palm Beach Gardens are licking their chops at the prospect of luring the Houston Astros to set up a new spring training facility in their burg. We know there may be as much as $100 million in public funds going into the deal. And we know that someone, somewhere, stands to make a bundle.

We hate to rain on the parade (actually, we don't mind at all). But even aside from the question of using public money to subsidize teams owned by multimillionaires, we think the citizenry should know just who they're getting in bed with.

Call us guilty of the worst sort of stereotyping, but our alarm bells went off when we saw the phrase "Texas businessman" in descriptions of Astros owner Jim Crane. We had no choice but to find out more about him, so we launched an intensive investigation (actually, we Googled him). Here's what we learned:

A native of Missouri, Crane (net worth estimated at $2 billion) grew up in the St. Louis suburbs and went to college at the University of Central Missouri, where he took a degree in industrial safety. He moved to Houston in 1980, went into the insurance business, then started what is now CEVA Logistics, an international freight shipping company. He sold his interest in that in 2007 and founded Crane Capital Group, whose biggest investments are in oil and gas, pipelines, and insurance.

Crane played baseball in college and remains a bit of an athlete, chiefly as a golfer. To scratch the golf itch, with some spare change, in 2010 he picked up the Floridian Golf Club, in Martin County, from Wayne Huizenga. To feed the baseball habit, he long sought to buy a major-league team and purchased the Astros two years ago.

Here's what's controversial in Crane's business record:

Discriminatory practices against women and blacks

According to the Houston Chronicle of May 11, 2000, federal investigators charged that Crane's company Eagle USA Airfreight

...tried to avoid hiring blacks and women of child-bearing age and creates a hostile working environment for women... pays female and minority employees less than white men who do similar work; did not investigate employee complaints of sexual harassment; and destroyed evidence that the company was instructed to retain as part of the two-year EEOC investigation.

The EEOC case finally settled in 2005, 203 of the gender and race discrimination claims found valid, the company paying out more than $2 million in back pay and training. When Crane purchased the Astros six years later, he met with Houston-area NAACP leaders and made so nice that the civil rights group leader said, "We believe that Mr. Crane has the opportunity to set a new standard and raise the bar for how sports franchises engage with the community."

War profiteering

Over three years, Crane's company Eagle Global Logistics paid the feds more than $5 million to settle claims of fraudulently inflating the costs of military cargo shipments to Iraq and paying kickbacks to Kellogg, Brown & Root. Details here, here and here.

Merger warfare involving lawsuits

A handy-dandy summary of Crane's history is in the article "Why Jim Crane Could Become Baseball's Most Controversial Owner" in a 2011 issue of Forbes. It includes a section headlined "Crane and Claims of Breaches of Fiduciary Duty." It seems the bidding war in which Crane ended up selling his interest in the logistics company that first made him rich turned ugly, as such things often do. Yawn. But as Forbes recounted:

it was claimed that the "Merger Agreement was the product of a sham process, controlled and manipulated by Crane, with the tacit or express connivance of the remaining defendants, in order to allow Crane to reap significant financial benefit from a coerced, self-dealing transaction."

We don't know what's in Crane's soul. People are complicated. Major League Baseball vetted him. But as Forbes pointed out, baseball teams are:

community assets. The team name is synonymous with the city that hosts it. There is, quite simply, an unquantifiable value to them. They are, for better or worse, a representation of the city itself...So, with that, their owners and executives are held to a higher standard. They too become a representative of the community, not too far removed from elected officials.

New Times reached out to the Palm Beach Gardens mayor and each of its City Council members for comment on Jim Crane's history. No one has replied.

Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.

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