By Julie Scharper and Luke Broadwater, The Baltimore Sun
10:39 PM EDT, August 6, 2012
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's top aides and relatives have routinely received free tickets to performances at Baltimore's 1st Mariner Arena in recent years, including sold-out concerts by such artists as Rihanna, Sade andJay-Z, public records show.
The city-owned arena provides hundreds of free tickets each year to the mayor's office, including blocks of seats to World Wrestling Entertainment matches, comedy shows and the circus, according to documents provided by the mayor's office in response to a public records request.
The mayor's office frequently distributes tickets for some events, such as Baltimore Blast soccer games, to children or community members. Rawlings-Blake's family members and aides often fill seats for shows by musical and other acts. This year, they have attended eight events, including professional bull-riding and Cirque du Soleil.
Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, defended the mayor's use of the tickets. He said the arena has provided complimentary tickets to the city for several decades under the terms of various operator agreements.
"The documents show that the City, like many others across the country, provides hundreds of complimentary tickets to hard-working employees, school students, elected officials, youth leagues, community groups, and charitable organizations," O'Doherty said in an email.
But James Browning, regional director of Common Cause Mid-Atlantic, a government watchdog group, questioned the propriety of the mayor's family and top aides receiving tickets.
"Unless they have a job promoting the city of Baltimore, it's hard to see a public interest in the mayor's family repeatedly getting free seats at these events," Browning said.
Rawlings-Blake's use of free tickets became the subject of public debate after she took back Ravens tickets this year for the mayor's skybox at M&T Bank Stadium from City Council PresidentBernard C. "Jack" Young. He had criticized her support of the Baltimore Grand Prix.
Browning also said the practice of giving away tickets to aides in the mayor's office — secretaries, scheduling aides and the mayor's police protection officers received blocks of tickets to events — raises concerns about how such perks are distributed.
"If they want to give people perks and bonuses, it should be in a way that is out in the open with their salaries and bonuses so that they can be held accountable in how they reward people," he said.
Frank Remesch, general manager of 1st Mariner Arena, did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
The records, which cover the past 21/2 years and were released by City Hall, include lists kept by Rawlings-Blake's office of ticket recipients and the number of tickets each was given.
The records also included hundreds of pages of emailed correspondence between an aide to the mayor, Elizabeth Koontz, and Teresa Waters, a 1st Mariner Arena employee. Koontz, who was charged with organizing ticket distribution for the mayor's office, sent several requests for tickets to specific events.
Arena officials set aside blocks of tickets for the mayor's office, including for sold-out events such as last year's Sade concert, according to the documents.
The mayor's office received 34 tickets to the 2011 show, which kicked off the reclusive musician's first North American tour in a decade, the records show. Rawlings-Blake got 10 of those tickets to distribute at her discretion; top aide Kaliope Parthemos received four; and other aides received a total of six tickets.
Six additional tickets went to other elected officials, who were not identified in the documents, and six went to unnamed community members.
More recently, Rawlings-Blake accepted four tickets in May to see 1980s boy band New Edition. Top aide Kimberly Washington received four tickets, and Teminka Rawlings, the mayor's sister-in-law, received two. Other city officials and state Sen. Nathaniel McFadden also attended the show as guests of the mayor, according to the records.
In June 2011, Rawlings-Blake's husband, Kent Blake, obtained six tickets from City Hall to see pop star Rihanna in concert. Teminka Rawlings received two tickets, as did then-Mayor Adrian Fenty of the District of Columbia. At least nine other tickets went to the mayor's top aides.
Lower-ranking employees of the mayor's office got blocks of tickets to events including the circus, Disney on Ice, the Harlem Globetrotters and motocross shows. Administrative assistants, scheduling aides and police officers assigned to protect the mayor received as many as a dozen tickets to such events.
Lobbyist Lisa Harris-Jones was a frequent guest of the mayor. Also listed as recipients are City Council members, though some not by name.
Most of the guests were identified in documents by first names. O'Doherty, the mayoral spokesman, confirmed that tickets went to a number of relatives, including the mayor's husband, brother and sister-in-law, and to top aides such as Washington and Parthemos. O'Doherty declined to identify other guests.
O'Doherty sent the ticket lists to reporters at several publications and television stations, after WBAL-TV requested the documents through a public records request.
O'Doherty wrote in an accompanying email that he was sending the information to all the news organizations "in the interest of a transparent government."
"Local news outlets should judge for themselves the relative news value of this information, which is neither new nor extraordinary," he wrote.
Rawlings-Blake has reported free tickets to events as gifts on her ethics forms in recent years. Officials are required to report gifts from entities that do business with the city.
From 2008 through 2010, the mayor listed receiving more than 140 tickets to 70 events, including shows at other venues such as Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
On the ethics forms, she reported receiving free tickets from Remesch to such shows as the Jonas Brothers, Alicia Keys, Beyonce, Maxwell and Jay-Z. The mayor also has received tickets to mixed martial-arts fights and the circus at 1st Mariner Arena.
But for 2011, her first full year as mayor, Rawlings-Blake did not report tickets from 1st Mariner Arena on her ethics disclosure forms. Her spokesman, O'Doherty, said the mayor's office concluded she does not need to report the tickets because the arena is owned by the city and, therefore, not a separate entity that does business with the city.
City Councilman Brandon Scott said he received arena tickets from the mayor when he worked as a member of her staff, and also after he joined the council.
"Being out in the neighborhoods, I gave them out to kids," Scott said. "People ask, 'Hey, do you guys have tickets to this kind of stuff?' Were it not for these tickets, some kids would never see the inside of the arena. If it weren't for these tickets, some of these kids would never get out of their four-block-by-four-block neighborhood."
Scott said he tried to invite young people involved in community groups to age-appropriate events. "I'm not giving kids tickets to lingerie football," he said.
City Councilman Nick Mosby said he received arena tickets only once from the mayor. They were to the Disney on Ice show.
"I don't know who gets them and who doesn't," he said of the tickets. "If I didn't have two young daughters, maybe I wouldn't have been offered them?"
Rawlings-Blake and economic development officials are exploring locations for a new indoor sports and concert arena to replace the aging 1st Mariner Arena. City officials are evaluating possible locations, financing and other aspects of the new arena, conceived of as an 18,500-seat facility that would cost at least $300 million.
Among arenas of a similar size around the country, 1st Mariner was last year's highest-grossing with nearly $16 million. City boosters contend that a new venue could build on the success of the arena.
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