Thursday, July 17, 2008

In court, the not-so-credible Professor Zimbalist gets shredded twice

Sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, author of a dubious study of the economic impact of Atlantic Yards, is hardly unerring, as listeners of the Brian Lehrer Show learned Monday, but his credibility was further undermined last month when he testified as an expert witness in a trial in Seattle over the departure of the Sonics for Oklahoma City.

The sides ultimately settled before a verdict, with the team’s new owners agreeing to pay $45 million (and $30 million more, if the legislature ponies up $75 million) to terminate the lease in Seattle—well more than originally offered but far less than the the city likely hoped for, given that a witness claimed (dubiously) that the team was responsible for $188 million in economic activity a year.

(More from Field of Schemes and the Post-Intelligencer. The Sonics, who offered the unusual--for sports teams--argument that the team had no economic benefit on the city it was leaving, saw their expert, Brad Humphreys, challenged as well. And the joke's on Oklahoma City, writes Forbes commentator Matt Woolsey, because they're still subsidizing the arena there.)

Zimbalist on the stand

One spur to the settlement, surely, was the poor performance of expert witness Zimbalist, whose stint on the stand provoked headlines like Sonics defense shreds professor's report and Sonics lawyer stymies sports economist.

Zimbalist was there to describe the tangible and intangible values of the team, but, as the 6/17/08 Post-Intelligencer reported, in a blog headlined
Defense rebounds with ugly flurry against plaintiff's economist, the going was tough:
Sonics lawyer Paul Taylor then tore into Zimbalist, basically accusing the author of taking the same report he wrote for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2005 and using it for the Sonics, showing Zimbalist several passages from both reports and revealing striking similarities, almost to the word, nearly destroying Zimbalist's credibility.

Taylor, who lost out on many exchanges with former Seattle Center director Virginia Anderson on Monday, pounded away at Zimbalist, an embarrassing conclusion to a shaky day for the city.


Another case

Taylor even pointed to another legal proceeding in which Zimbalist lost credibility. In an opinion issued 1/7/08 in the antitrust case Kentucky Speedway vs. NASCAR and International Speedway Corporation, Kentucky-based federal judge William Bertelsman wrote:
Zimbalist’s approach… has not been tested; has not been subjected to peer review and publication; there are no standards controlling it; and there is no showing that it enjoys general acceptance within the scientific community. Further, it was produced solely for this litigation.


More from SceneDaily, which covers NASCAR. The case is under appeal.

Still, the judge's criticism of Zimbalist’s novel approach sounds a lot like... Zimbalist’s not-peer-reviewed study for Forest City Ratner, produced solely to get the project passed.

The judge is unconvinced

In the basketball trial, as the Seattle Times reported:
Zimbalist couldn’t convince [U.S. District] Judge Marsha Pechman that he was really discussing different issues.

"Do I understand that you came up with a number in Los Angeles on page N that would be 7.75 million, but you are unable to come that up with a number in Seattle?" Pechman asked.

"Yes. And as I explained..." Zimbalist started to say.

"Thank you. You've answered my question," Pechman said.


How long did it take?

In an article headlined Sonics defense shreds professor's report, the Oklahoman reported:
Taylor challenged Zimbalist's estimation that it took him 20-25 hours to write the report, questioning how it could have taken so long to make a few changes. Zimbalist said that he does a lot of lecturing and writing on the topic and so is prone to using the same language in different efforts.

Taylor said Zimbalist had testified in a deposition earlier this year that he had written the Seattle report "from scratch.” "How many thousand dollars did you charge the city of Seattle to take your report from Los Angeles and bring it up to Seattle?” Taylor said.

Zimbalist said he didn't remember how much he charged the city. An attorney for the city told reporters later that he also didn't know how much the professor had billed the city.


How much did it cost?

Shortly afterward, the City Attorney released information about how much Zimbalist was paid.

For Zimbalist’s 21-page report, which took him an estimated (though questionable) 20 hours, he was paid $17,753, which included “a basic fee of $10,000, plus other charges for time and expenses,” the newspaper reported.

We don’t know how much Zimbalist was paid by Forest City Ratner. But maybe, given that Gov. George Pataki’s administration relied on Zimbalist’s study in a press release, the government should tell us.

Does Zimbalist deserve the last word?

Remember, the New York Times’s 6/29/04 coverage of a critique of Zimbalist’s report gave the economist the last word:
Dr. Zimbalist, for his part, said he had not seen the report and knew only what he had heard from reporters. Saying he was unsure whether Dr. Peebles or Mr. Kim had fully understood the economic issues, he added, ''I was very careful in my use of numbers.''


More and more, we realize, the hired consultant deserves peer review rather than unskeptical deference.

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