Correction to This Article
An article in the Nov. 2 Sports section on the bid by Frederic V. Malek and Jeffrey Zients to buy the Washington Nationals incorrectly named a D.C. company that Zients helped take public. The correct name is the Corporate Executive Board.
The Bidders A Look at the Washington Nationals' Potential New Owners

Malek, Zients Are Big Hitters in an All-Star Ownership Lineup

Frederic V. Malek
Venture capitalist Frederic V. Malek and his group of investors appear to be front-runners to purchase the Nationals. (Rick Bowmer - AP)
By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 2, 2005

First in an occasional series

Venture capitalist Frederic V. Malek appears to have done all the right things in assembling a group of 14 fellow investors to purchase the Washington Nationals. He recruited rock-star names such as former secretary of state Colin L. Powell and Wall Street banker Vernon E. Jordan Jr. He won the backing of D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams. And he elevated local business wunderkind Jeffrey D. Zients from an investor in the group to a partner in charge of its day-to-day operations.

But as Major League Baseball nears a decision on who will be the team's next owner, Malek's front-runner status also has a downside. Some involved in the sale process quietly suspect the Malek-Zients team of orchestrating media and political attacks against fellow bidders. These include sowing doubt about the reliability of Indianapolis media mogul Jeff Smulyan, a past owner of the Seattle Mariners, and Washington entrepreneur Jon Ledecky, whose partnership with billionaire George Soros drew criticism from leading Republicans on Capitol Hill.

The suspicions ran deeply enough that Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig alluded to the matter during an interview with Malek and Zients two weeks ago at Selig's office in Milwaukee, according to sources familiar with the meeting. Malek and Zients declined to comment on the meeting.

The Malek-Zients group denies it has sought to undermine any bidders, and there is no public evidence that it did.

"We believe Major League Baseball has run a fair and rigorous process, and we have never engaged in anything negative," said Winston Bao Lord, executive director of the Malek-Zients group.

But the concerns have contributed to the air of unpredictability surrounding MLB's selection process, which some senior advisers to Selig say could conclude in time for a Nov. 16-17 owners meeting in Milwaukee.

Malek's group, which since 1999 has been at the forefront of local efforts to bring a baseball team back to Washington, has in recent months sought to keep as low a profile as possible to protect what it once thought was its favored status and deflect criticism that it was campaigning against rival groups, according to people close to the Malek group, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the sale was at a sensitive stage.

Among the eight bidders, Malek has the longest and deepest ties to Washington's political and business communities -- and is savvy in the ways the capital works. Malek, 68, served in the Nixon White House, managed George H.W. Bush's 1992 presidential reelection campaign and was a onetime partner with President Bush in owning the Texas Rangers.

A graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and Harvard Business School, Malek today heads Thayer Capital Partners, a District-based investment firm that manages several billion dollars and recently sold one of the District's largest hotels, the Marriott Wardman Park. He also is a past president of Marriott Hotels and Northwest Airlines.

"He's got a killer Rolodex," said J. Willard "Bill" Marriott Jr., chairman and chief executive of Marriott International, who has done business with Malek for years. "He knows his way around town. He knows everybody."

Malek is particularly close to the Bush family. He and the president made millions when they and other investors bought the Rangers for $86 million in 1989 and sold them nine years later to investor Tom Hicks for $250 million. While owning the team, they successfully oversaw construction of a new stadium built with public and private money.

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