The Nets, Trump, And Landfills: Pulitzer Finalist John Brennan Recaps 25+ Years On The New Jersey Beat

John Brennan, who has been on the NJ sports and gambling beats for decades, is bringing his talents to the gambling industry full time.
Pulitzer Prize
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Last month, New Jersey finally won its long-running sports betting legal battle against the NFL and four other sports organizations — a saga that goes back to a defiant statewide vote in 2011, with roots that go back even further.

Why did it take so long? It’s my fault.

Ok, not really. But as I begin a new stage of my career here as Senior Analyst at DGS Media, here’s a look at why I am (almost) tempted to mean it.

A series of unfortunate events

I began covering the New Jersey Nets in 1992 — the same season that Jayson Williams joined the team. We both left in 2000 after a tumultuous experience and tried other things. In 2002, just after I switched over to news, in a tragic way, so did he. The accidental — and easily avoidable — fatal shooting of a limousine driver at his 27,000 square foot mansion in rural New Jersey evolved into an eight-year legal battle that finally left him serving an 18-month prison term. Eight years with Jayson on the court, eight years with Jayson in court.

In 1998, a new ownership group came in, met with the beat writers, and clearly explained to us how and why the Nets would be moving into a new arena in Newark in a few years. It sounded plausible. And that arena, Prudential Center, did indeed open. In 2007. And it was the New Jersey Devils — not the Nets — that were the tenants. That, too, I covered from start to finish.

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By 1998, I was well into a nine-year stint writing sidebars on the New York Knicks’ efforts to win an NBA championship. I covered nearly 100 of their postseason games courtside. This included watching Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals in Houston from a seat under the basket, about three feet from the court. While I covered these games, the Knicks reached the second round of the playoffs each year, got to four conference finals, and reached two NBA finals. Since I left the beat, they have won one playoff series in 17 years. Like Bob Dylan wrote, “I can’t help it if I’m lucky.”

At my first meeting of the board of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority in 2002, the new chairman and president of this agency that runs the Meadowlands Sports Complex touted a plan to bring an entertainment and retail complex to the site. Ok, I figured, how hard can that be?

The Xanadu project was approved in 2003, ground was broken in 2005, a new developer arrived in 2006, the project became dormant in 2009, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross kicked the tires in 2010, another new developer came along in 2012, and work on the site proved sporadic for years. It revived in a big way in 2017 after the sale of more than $1 billion in bonds and, well, after I left The Bergen Record newspaper last fall. In the end, my 15 years of covering this saga for them won’t include the expected grand opening in 2019. (Wait, it would impact the Meadowlands Racetrack, so…)

Presidents and billionaires

The Nets came up for sale in 2003, and New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey’s staff asked billionaire Donald Trump to look into buying the team. Once I got that scoop, Trump called me back for a 15-minute conversation that boiled down to, “I looked at the books and no thanks — but have fun with your story!”

The state turned next to the future father-in-law of Trump’s daughter Ivanka, because, well, it’s New Jersey. You’ve seen the reality shows. Real life here is much more melodramatic than those shows. Charles Kushner, Jared’s father, made his bid a year before being convicted of sending a blackmail sex tape to the wife of his business partner. His business partner was his brother-in-law, so the woman who received the sex tape from Kushner is Kushner’s sister. (They were estranged, but by now you had already guessed that.)

Kushner finished second in the bidding to another major real estate mogul, Bruce Ratner, who in 2003 announced the Nets would be moving to Brooklyn. So be it. Then came the series of raucous public hearings (more passion there than at a Nets overtime game in the Meadowlands), lawsuits, public bickering, environmental reviews, and court rulings. The Nets indeed began play as the Brooklyn Nets, but not until 2012, after two transitional seasons in Newark (so that 1998 announcement was at least a small percentage right). That was some ride as well.

Almost taking the prize

In 2006, I became part of an investigative team looking into some curious Meadowlands real estate deals. At first I studied the Secaucus Junction mass transit/housing plan that by this time had stalled for 25 years or so (yes, really). Finally, something complicated, I thought. But another reporter left after a few months, so I switched focus to a golf-and-housing project in the Meadowlands called EnCap. You know those landfills (a PR executive’s name for garbage dumps) from the early episodes of The Sopranos? The idea was that people would spend at least a half-million dollars to buy a condominium atop those, er, landfills. What could go wrong? Okay, everything.

By early 2007, we were investigating in earnest, and while we didn’t know it at the time, so too were the governor’s office and the federal prosecutors. The push to cash out nearly $500 million before the project had even gotten cumbersome environmental approvals had each of us feeling skeptical.

One day I got a call from an impeccable source who asked me, “If you could pick anyone in the world who would be taking over this struggling project, who would it be?”

Before I could think of what name would draw the most interest in the story — positive or negative, who cares — I got the answer: Donald Trump. Again. So began a whirlwind six months that took me to a one-on-one tour of the landfills with The Donald — well, his trusty aide Michael Cohen was there as well. In the office we nicknamed the ensuing video “Trump at the Dump.” Then there was a meeting at Trump Tower in his office where at the conclusion, Trump asked my colleague and me if we wanted to take a picture with him. Er, no, we’re working here.

Trump was too late to stop the project from collapsing, leading to numerous unprompted phone calls from him to me berating the governor for being “so dimwitted.” The state lost more than $50 million it had invested in the failed project, federal indictments were issued — and my colleague and I were chosen as 2008 Pulitzer Prize Finalists for Local Reporting, after a mere 18 months of investigation. (There is one winner, along with two finalists, in each Pulitzer category.)

Sports betting, online gambling, and…more Trumps?

In 2010, I started my Meadowlands Matters blog and the @BergenBrennan Twitter handle. By that time, the seeds of New Jersey’s sports betting insurrection had begun to germinate. Online casino gaming legislation was moving too, and was completed by 2013, making it among the briefest of my multi-year sagas.

The six years of NCAA et al. v New Jersey contained some of the most remarkable plot twists I have ever covered. In a nutshell, the state’s 2012 law took direct aim at Congress’s 1992 law that basically allowed Nevada free reign on sports betting while forcing almost all other states to keep it prohibited. The first state law thumbed its nose at that federal law. At the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, a 2-1 majority found that while the state’s law had to be voided, it would be possible for the state to craft a different law that would be acceptable.

So the state tried that. A second Third Circuit panel heard the new case, and again ruled 2-1 against New Jersey.

But it gets better: The dissenting judge in the second case is the very same judge who wrote the majority opinion the first time around. He found that the state had indeed met its burden of passing a new law that was kosher. But the other two judges — neither of whom were on the first panel — basically overruled that finding.

One of them was Marjorie Rendell, wife of Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor who was the key figure in bringing casinos to that state in the previous decade. That effort indirectly led the Atlantic City casino industry to the brink of extinction, with three casinos formerly owned by President Trump among those that would eventually be shuttered or sold and rebranded. The precipitous industry decline induced New Jersey to push for sports betting as a lifeline.

The other judge in the second 2-1 Third Circuit majority was Maryanne Trump Barry, and if you have gotten this far, you can guess this would be now-President Trump’s sister.

Bringing us to today…

The takeaway?

In my new role, I will be looking further into the efforts of New York, Pennsylvania, California, Illinois, and other key states to get sports betting off the ground. And if my previous decades of experience suggest anything, it’s that proponents in each of those states should fasten their seat belts. It could well be a bumpy ride.

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