Ethics panel calls halt to politicians' ticket perk
By Andrea Estes, Globe Staff, 1/16/2004
The state Ethics Commission is cracking down on a time-honored perk for Massachusetts politicians -- special access to tickets for sold-out events, like sports playoff games.
For the first time, the commission said it is not enough for public officials to pay face value for coveted tickets to sporting, theatrical, musical, or other events. If an ordinary person cannot easily get tickets to the event, politicians given special access to buy them are violating the state's conflict of interest law, the commission said.
The ruling comes on the eve of the New England Patriots AFC Championship Game with the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday in Foxborough.
"As public officials, we should keep in mind that free or discounted tickets or special access to tickets is not a privilege of office," said Peter Sturges, executive director of the Ethics Commission.
The commission said it was inundated with questions and complaints last fall after the Globe reported that several politicians, including three Boston city councilors and two State House leaders, purchased Red Sox playoff tickets at face value from the team.
Tickets had sold out almost immediately after the team advanced to the postseason, but the Red Sox gave the councilors the opportunity to buy four tickets each, at face value of up to $110 apiece, to each home playoff game. At the time, tickets were selling online for as much as $2,000 each, and ticket agencies were charging 10 times face value or more.
Council President Michael F. Flaherty and councilors Michael Ross and John M. Tobin Jr., as well as Senate President Robert E. Travaglini and House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, got tickets from a pool set aside by the Red Sox for VIPs and other groups.
The officials were criticized by watchdog groups, who called the purchase an improper perk and a potential conflict of interest. The Red Sox have numerous issues before the city, from permits for concerts to the controversial question of the future of Fenway Park.
State conflict of interest law prohibits politicians from using or attempting to use their position to obtain "an unwarranted privilege." Violations are punishable by civil penalties of up to $2,000 per violation. The ruling issued yesterday will not be enforced retroactively, so no action will be taken against the politicians who previously purchased tickets at face value.
Politicians were already prohibited from accepting free tickets worth $50 or more.
In determining whether there has been a violation, the commission will look at the demand for tickets and their availability, and at the prices charged by ticket agencies and online services. If the public is paying more than $50 beyond face value for a ticket, the politician cannot purchase the ticket at face value.
Officials will also be deemed to have broken the law if they are avoiding the "cumbersome or time-consuming ticket distribution process" -- like long lines.
One exception was made: Politicians can still attend an event for free as part of their official duties -- for example, if they are invited to throw out the first pitch at a baseball game.
Ethics Commission chairman E. George Daher said, "This ruling reiterates a point I made when I was sworn in as chairman recently: Public service is not self service."
Red Sox spokesman Kevin Shea said the team hadn't seen the ruling but "of course, we'll follow the law and the guidelines of the Ethics Commission in these matters." A spokesman for the Patriots did not return phone calls.
Pamela Wilmot, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Massachusetts
said the ruling "closes another door to influence peddling by corporate interests. It appropriately puts elected officials on an equal footing with the people they represent."
Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a business-funded city government watchdog, said the ruling recognizes that "if something is not available to the general public, elected officials ought to stay away."
Yesterday, Flaherty and Ross were not available for comment. Tobin said he was comfortable with the ruling.
"I respect their ruling," said Tobin. "That's why I have signed up for season tickets for the Red Sox -- to erase any of that type of appearance of conflict."
Two city councilors, who both said publicly last fall they would not accept face-value tickets, praised the commission, saying that VIP treatment for politicians sends the wrong message to voters.
"It's the perception that we have an advantage that others do not," said Councilor at Large Maura Hennigan. "People were calling up and asking, `Would you set some tickets aside?', while regular folks were waiting in line in their sleeping bag. I didn't feel right about it. Obviously the Ethics Commission didn't either."
Councilor at Large Felix D. Arroyo said, "If I were a member of the Ethics Commission I'd rule the same way. I would not feel comfortable accepting such a thing. I don't think any official should feel comfortable accepting this."
Boston is not the only place where politicians and tickets have been an issue. In December, the New York Yankees agreed to pay a $75,000 fine to settle an investigation by the state of New York's Lobbying Commission into free tickets the team gave city officials.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, and City Council Speaker Gifford Miller were among the public officials who accepted free tickets to 2002 Yankees playoff games.
Bloomberg told all city officials this fall not to accept free tickets to Yankees and Mets games except for opening day. Opening day is considered a ceremonial event and is regarded differently, state officials said.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.