Kelly Bailey was so blown away by Pink's recent Chicago concert that she hopped online to nab tickets to the star's Wednesday show at Rosemont's Allstate Arena. But the 30-year-old speech pathologist couldn't stomach paying scalper markups online — again.
Elmwood Park Mayor Skip Saviano didn't have that problem. Saviano, a longtime friend of the Rosemont mayor's family, landed two face-value Pink tickets for someone else just by reaching out to village hall.
Also scoring tickets from the village was Isaac Degen, a construction contractor who helped build most of Rosemont's ventures.
And it is not just Rosemont that gives special access to tickets for the well-connected, a Tribune investigation of suburbs with major concert venues found. A village trustee in Tinley Park tapped the town's connections at least a dozen times to buy seats to shows at First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre. In Bridgeview, the mayor's office hands out free tickets to events at Toyota Park.
"That's not right," Bailey said when told of the Tribune's findings.
It may come as little surprise that entertainment industry types and high-level politicians get special deals to hot shows. But the Tribune's examination reveals special access also is available to local officials and their friends.
In many cases, special access to tickets is considered a long-standing courtesy extended to public officials by venue operators, or as a privilege that comes when a town owns its own concert venue. The perk has become even more valuable as the prices of concerts and events have increased and the online scalping market has exploded.
The Tribune reviewed ticketing practices at the suburbs' largest concert venues through contracts, policies and emails. Three suburbs — Tinley Park, Bridgeview and Rosemont — stood out in how local politicians and insiders were able to cut in line ahead of regular fans for major draws, from Baby Boomer stars such as the Eagles to boy band sensation One Direction.
In most cases, the officials and insiders are paying for tickets but are still getting a benefit, especially for sold-out concerts. That's because their tickets come from a pool not available to the general public. The tickets are often for good seats and come without the luck-of-the-draw frustration of buying like everyone else or the steep markups on the secondary market.
"I would imagine those folks from the public, who have paid for their tickets and more, would think it is very unfair when they show up to an event and see a mayor and his friends in the best seats," said Maryam Judar, executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center, an Elmhurst-based legal aid and watchdog group.
The ability to get tickets for friends and insiders can serve as political currency for suburban mayors.
When an act comes to town, the venue contract typically sets aside tickets to be given away for free, often for marketing efforts and media. (Tribune critics, entertainment reporters and editors do not pay admission to shows the newspaper attends as part of its coverage. They also sometimes bring a guest.)
The contracts also can set aside what are typically called "house" or "hold" tickets for seats scattered throughout the venue, including some of the best seats. Those tickets are to be sold at face value but kept out of the pool available to the general public.
Both pools of tickets exist for most shows.
Rosemont is one of the top suburban entertainment hubs, boasting a convention center, two concert venues and a recently added sports dome and softball stadium. A previous investigation by the Tribune showed that the village has long had deals that benefit members of the Stephens family, whose patriarch, Donald, founded the suburb.
Requests for tickets had gotten so disorderly that Mayor Bradley Stephens decided this year to write a policy for face-value tickets and keep a log of who got them.
The village also gets free tickets to give away. A village attorney said no record is kept of where they go, though he said they are given only to promoters, advertisers or charities.
The policy for face-value tickets allows village employees and anyone who can "enhance business and operations for the Village of Rosemont" to get them. The mayor's office has the final say.
Stephens' ticket log tracks requests for at least 166 tickets this year, including more than a dozen each to popular shows including the Eagles, Selena Gomez, country star Hunter Hayes and the upcoming Pink show.
The list shows tickets going to village employees and contractors, several members of the Stephens family and outside politicians, among others.
Among those looking for Pink tickets were Saviano and Degen, whose construction firm helped build Allstate Arena. Degen and Saviano didn't return phone calls.
Officials involved in such practices defend the benefit, saying it is a harmless practice that allows them to help residents see shows and promote the facilities.
"This is the way the showbiz industry operates," said Rosemont spokesman Gary Mack.
Mack said it is all done "in the public interest" because the tickets go to locals and strengthen ties with surrounding suburbs and contractors. He stressed that the tickets were paid for by the ticket user.
That's cold comfort to Tami Baba and Jodi Slovin, suburbanites who found Pink tickets at the United Center to be overpriced online.
"I know that people probably get tickets (through connections) and what bothers me about that is they probably go to people who would have no problem paying for tickets on their own," Baba said. "They're taking tickets off the top, and keeping them out of the public."
'Friend of a friend'
Earlier this year, a phone call came in to U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski's chief of staff, Jerry Hurckes. The person on the other end of the line wanted tickets to a WWE wrestling show at the Allstate Arena, Hurckes said.
Lipinski's district is about 10 miles south of Rosemont. The suburb's mayor and the congressman are in opposing political parties. Still, Hurckes said he called the village and secured the seats — helping a person he called "a friend of a friend," though he couldn't remember the name.
"I didn't think it was a big issue," Hurckes said. "We try to help our constituents."
Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson knew what to do when his daughter asked him to get tickets to last year's Jason Aldean concert at First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in Tinley Park. He called Village Hall. He considered it "a courtesy."
"I have done that once, maybe twice, in 12 years," Johnson said.
Tinley Park officials have long had a line on tickets thanks to a relationship with venue owner Live Nation that provides the village access to a pool of seats held back from the general public, Village Manager Scott Niehaus said.
A Live Nation general manager said the company gives village officials special access because the company considers them like other close vendors they want to assist, such as record labels.
"If it's something they want access to, we offer it to them as a sort of shortcut," said Brian Rutkowski, who oversees several Live Nation Midwest venues. "They pay all the fees like anyone."
The available tickets are usually prime seats, often near the stage, according to a review of order forms and emails from the village. In most cases, the requests were processed by Mayor Ed Zabrocki's secretary, who also frequently picks up tickets from the First Midwest box office.
The requests the Tribune reviewed often came from town employees, sometimes explicitly asking for "good seats." They covered 30 shows, from Kid Rock's "Best Night Ever" concert to Jimmy Buffett.
"I have looked at LiveNation and we would love seats in sections 101, 102, 104 or 105," reads one email to a village secretary. "Obviously, if this isn't possible, we might end up trying to get good seats through StubHub, but if we don't have to pay those prices, that would be great."
Village officials rank among the top ticket requesters. One was Treasurer Brad Bettenhausen, who in the past two years used the Village Hall connection to buy about 35 tickets to a half-dozen shows. Bettenhausen said he does so for convenience.
Trustee Thomas Staunton bought tickets to more than a dozen shows over the last two years, including Kiss, Toby Keith and Miranda Lambert.
"I'm a big music fan," said Staunton while attending the Country Music Awards in Nashville. "I would go to a lot of shows before I was on the board. This is more of a convenient thing than getting them on the Internet."
Niehaus said any Tinley Park residents could get the same help from the village, if they knew to ask for tickets. Village records indicate that out of 57,000 residents, only about 50 different people requested tickets over two years, some of them not even village residents.
The village doesn't publicize that residents have that option because, Niehaus said, if everyone knew, the staff would be inundated with requests.
"We don't want to get into that. That's what Ticketmaster is for," he said.
In certain cases, potential conflict of interest issues can arise.
Tinley Park officials are in charge of dealing with noise and traffic issues at the 28,000-seat amphitheater. Yet, the venue's operator gives the same officials special access to tickets.
Tinley Park's mayor disputed any conflict. Zabrocki said local officials have always been able to get tickets to shows at the venue, dating to when it opened in the 1990s. But he acknowledged the practice might need to be reviewed, as the ticket market has changed and the value of the perk has increased.
"We should probably take a look at it. All good things must come to an end sometimes," he said. "This may be one of those things."
In best practice, officials should only get special access to tickets if it is for a clear public purpose, such as observing how a facility is run, said David Morrison, deputy director of the watchdog group Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
"If it is just to get tickets to a show that everyone else wants, then this is nothing more than a perk," Morrison said. "There should be better rules policing who has access."
Officials in Hoffman Estates, who oversee the Sears Centre Arena, and Highland Park, home to Ravinia Festival, don't appear to have regular access to such tickets.
In Bridgeview, hundreds of free tickets are given out for games and concerts at the southwest suburb's 20,000-seat Toyota Park.
Mayor Steven Landek said giving away the seats is better than having them go empty. At least, he said, the attendee might buy a beer or pay for parking, which makes money for the village.
Yet, the tickets can also serve to bolster the mayor's standing with residents, who have faced higher taxes as the stadium has struggled to live up to promises.
A Tribune investigation last year showed the stadium and other developments saddled the small suburb with more than $200 million in debt while the stadium was not making enough to pay back the money.
Village emails show one point person for free tickets was a village manager who tried to kick Landek's primary opponent off the ballot in the mayor's successful state Senate bid.
Landek said the manager was a point person to hand out tickets to residents who complained about Toyota Park traffic. Landek said he doesn't try to capitalize on the free tickets politically.
"I don't come up and stand in front of them and say, 'I got you the tickets, what a great guy I am,'" Landek said.
A particularly sought-after show this year was the B96 Summer Bash, featuring Grammy winner Ne-Yo and hosted by Miley Cyrus. The show's contract set aside at least 500 free tickets. Emails reflect where roughly 60 of those went.
According to one email chain, Landek passed along a request from the chairman of his local party's political committee. The man wanted 12 tickets for his granddaughters and their friends — "done," read a village employee's reply.
In another Summer Bash example, the village mailed tickets to one of Bridgeview's financial consultants. The consultant's firm was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for work on financing for Toyota Park.
Asked about those tickets, Landek said: "I've known him for years."
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