10Investigates: Free sports tickets for politicians in Tampa Bay

10Investigates looks into a potential conflict of interest for local officials.

TAMPA, Florida - Many of the politicians who decide how many tax dollars will go to benefit Tampa Bay’s professional sports franchises are also accepting free tickets to those teams’ games. And many of those elected officials are failing to properly disclose the gifts.

10Investigates has been tracking the attendee lists for Tampa Sports Authority’s luxury box at Raymond James Stadium, as well as state gift disclosures for Tampa Bay-area politicians over the last three years. And a number of potential conflicts of interest might be present, as the Bucs, Lightning and Rays have all courted local governments for tax money in the past 12 months.

The Tampa Sports Authority (TSA) refused interviews for this story but told 10Investigates its suite typically includes beer, wine, liquor, and a number of casual food items such as burgers and Cuban sandwiches.  Occasionally, crab cakes and sushi may be added. And access to politically-influential business leaders is always on the menu.

Florida law generally allows local politicians to accept gifts, such as free tickets, but it also requires politicians to publicly disclose any gift received over $100. Some officials tell 10Investigates they outright reject any ticket or gift offers, for they could be perceived as a conflict of interest. But some gift-receiving politicians are better about filing their required state disclosures each quarter than others.

“I believe that anybody who is making a decision, if they are serving a public entity ... should disclose (receiving tickets),” said former Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who filed quarterly gift disclosures every quarter while in office, even if he didn’t accept any gifts during the period.

“Needless to say, I think we all know we have to keep a very close eye on politicians,” said current Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Stacy White. “Sometimes a gift can be a favor in return for some type of preferential treatment, perhaps a vote.”

But White was among the politicians 10Investigates found failing to disclose some of the tickets he received from the TSA. While he had filled out gift disclosures for tickets in the past, he did not in the spring of 2015 or 2016, when he received a total of 10 Monster Jam tickets to the TSA suite (value: $450).

“That was simply an oversight by my part, but I genuinely appreciate and respect that you hold government officials accountable,” White told 10Investigates. “Rest assured that we’re going to look at these not only once or twice, but three times looking forward.”

The 10 most expensive ticket gifts disclosed by local politicians (in the last three years):

10Investigates also found that tickets to the TSA’s suite at Raymond James Stadium commonly end up in the hands of politicians’ friends and family members, rather than in the hands of business leaders or charities. An agency spokesperson said the TSA’s goal of the ticket allocations was “to further community relations, economic development and the like.”

Other 10Investigates findings:

  • Hillsborough Commissioner Sandy Murman received three luxury box tickets to the 2016 Outback Bowl for her husband but did not disclose them. She said she thought it was to be disclosed at the end of the year. She purchases her own Bucs tickets to avoid any appearance of a conflict.
  • Commissioner Les Miller has regular access to Bucs and USF suites, but because the tickets are always left for his wife, former city councilwoman Gwen Miller, he isn’t legally obligated to disclose them.
  • Tampa City Council members and Hillsborough County commissioners on the TSA board do not consider their stadium tickets as gifts, even though they get two suite tickets to every game, match and concert held there. 10Investigates found no disclosure for the tens of thousands of dollars in tickets they receive each year, and there is no way to tell if they are bringing friends, family, associates or even campaign donors.
  • Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a frequent guest of local sports teams, has publicly disclosed receiving Tampa Bay Lightning playoff tickets four times from three different sources: the team, SunTrust Bank and the Tampa Bay Times (twice).  He also disclosed a pair of tickets to the Glazer Family’s Buccaneers suite in 2014, but told 10Investigates he has never received any suite tickets to Tropicana Field.
  • St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman – as well as city council members – regularly disclose receiving free concert and sporting event tickets, typically from the city’s allocation at public venues such as Tropicana Field, the Mahaffey Theater and the St. Petersburg Grand Prix. Several Pinellas commissioners and Tampa City Council members also received Rays tickets from local organizations and businesses.
  • Many politicians have also disclosed receiving free travel expenses for trips to Cuba (including Kriseman and Pinellas commissioner Janet Long) as well as international economic development missions (Kriseman and Hillsborough commissioner Al Higginbotham).
  • State Senator Tom Lee, who is not allowed to accept any gift worth more than $25 as a state legislator, received a pair of suite tickets to the Feb. 2016 Monster Jam at Raymond James Stadium from the TSA’s lobbyist, Ron Pierce. Lee later paid Pierce for the Monster Jam tickets, but Pierce was allowed to keep the money. Lee sent 10Investigates a canceled check to Pierce for tickets to a number of undisclosed events.
  • The office of USF President Judy Genshaft is given full discretion on whom to invite to her suite at Raymond James Stadium for USF home games, but the office has struggled to provide the records on who has attended in recent years.  An invite list shows most local mayors and Congressional members have been invited, but several of the individuals told 10Investigates they never attended. The university receives – and lobbies for – tax dollars from local, state, and federal governments.
  • 10Investigates requested the public records on politicians receiving free tickets at University of Florida and Florida State University football games, but neither university was able to provide records in time for publishing.
  • About half of local council members and commissioners in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties did not fill out a single gift disclosure in the last three years.

The Rays, Buccaneers and Lightning also all invite politicians to games, often in the club or suite level. But since the teams are private businesses, their records are not available through public record requests. The Lightning use the same lobbyist as the Tampa Sports Authority.

The city of Tampa also has an additional provision in the city code requiring all elected officials - as well as any employees who are appointed, work in procurement, permitting or zoning - to fill out additional disclosures annually for any gift, including tickets, over $100 in value. Tampa's public records liason told 10Investigates the city doesn't have a single disclosure on file in recent years.

Commissioner Murman told 10Investigates that Hillsborough’s county attorney’s office will add gift disclosures to its annual ethics training to improve compliance and transparency in the future.

Find 10 Investigates reporter Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Read his Sports Business Blog at Shadow of the Stadium.

© 2017 WTSP-TV


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