By Luke Broadwater and Julie Scharper, The Baltimore Sun
6:02 PM EST, February 11, 2012
Luxury boxes at major sporting events. Sold-out concerts. Galas. Vegas shows.
Baltimore's lawmakers often receive tickets for shows and other popular events from developers, business people, corporations and nonprofits as one of the perks of office. Over three years, elected officials in City Hall reported getting more than 170 tickets worth more than $15,000, according to the most recent filings available.
City Hall has strengthened ethics laws after Mayor Sheila Dixon pleaded guilty to perjury charges two years ago and agreed to resign after failing to disclose gifts from a developer boyfriend. Still, lawmakers are allowed to accept gifts under certain circumstances, so long as they are annually divulged on publicly available forms.
But the law that governs such gifts is complex, and City Hall officials have different views of what they can legally accept and what they should report on their ethics forms, a Baltimore Sun investigation found.
Moreover, the disclosure forms are rarely reviewed by the office that collects them. There has not been a comprehensive review of the forms in at least eight years, according to the former chairwoman of the city's ethics board.
"The whole thing is a dysfunctional system," said Fred Guy, director of the University of Baltimore's Hoffberger Center for Professional Ethics, who also has advised MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blake's staff. "The whole thing is ineffectual and not taken seriously."
And the gifts of tickets show a too-cozy relationship between business leaders and politicians, Guy said.
"The public is really sick and tired of conflicts of interest and double standards on the part of elected officials," he said. "It's almost a self-deception. [Officials] convince themselves there's nothing wrong."
Baltimore's ethics law generally prohibits elected officials from receiving gifts from anyone who does business with the public servant's agency, but it makes an exception for tickets to charitable, cultural, sporting or political events — if the ticket is given by the event sponsor. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, for instance, can give tickets to shows as an event sponsor.
In September, the City Council eliminated part of that exception from the law — after a state law required more stringent local rules — making it illegal to accept tickets to sporting events from anyone who does business with a city official's agency, regardless of sponsorship.
Failure to properly fill out ethics forms can carry stiff sanctions, including criminal penalties such as those levied against Dixon. Employees can be fined $250 for failing to submit the forms.
But there is wide disparity in how top city officials fill out the forms.
Consider, for instance, a Jan. 7, 2009, trip taken by City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young, Council Vice President Edward Reisinger and Councilman William H. "Bill" Cole IV to Newark to watch a New Jersey Devils hockey game with developer Jerome Gottesman, chairman of Edison Properties. Gottesman was trying to pitch the council members on Baltimore's need for a new arena, the councilmen say.
Cole reported the hockey game ticket as a gift but also reported that he paid for it by check. Young also reported the ticket, though he didn't indicate who had given him the gift. Asked by The Sun recently, Young said he paid for the ticket in cash. And Reisinger didn't report the ticket as a gift. He said recently that he didn't think he was required to do so.
Nearly three-fourths of the members of the City Council did not list receiving a single gift from a person doing business with the city over the three years.
Some city officials complain of confusion about which gift-givers are prohibited because they do business with the city.
Young and Rawlings-Blake reported receiving tickets to a Ravens game in 2008 from MedStar Health, which owns five hospitals in Maryland, including Good Samaritan in the city. Rawlings-Blake, who was City Council president then, said the city's ethics adviser Avery Aisenstark told her office that the gifts were allowed because MedStar Health did not qualify as an entity that does business with the city.
But a database of checks paid by the city, obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request, shows that MedStar Transportation, a division of MedStar Health, received about $13,000 in payments that year.
Young said he received oral approval to attend from the city's ethics adviser, who declines to discuss specific cases. Young's spokesman, Lester Davis, said there are many confusing aspects to the city's enforcement of ethics rules and reporting requirements on disclosure forms. He also said that determining when an entity has done business with the city can be difficult.
"There's this overarching issue of it not being clear who is doing business with the city on a year-to-year basis," Davis said.
While elected officials and scores of city employees are required to fill out annual ethics disclosures, there is no formal process by which the forms are scrutinized.
Attorney Dana P. Moore, who was a member of the ethics board from 2004 to 2010 and served as its chairwoman for three years, said that the citizen board never reviewed the forms in the six years she was a member. City employees turned in their forms to the board's executive director Aisenstark, and he did not bring the forms to the ethics board to review, Moore said.
Moore herself failed to file her ethics forms during her last three years on the board, as required of its five members, which she acknowledged was a "mistake."
Aisenstark said his office receives thousands of ethics forms annually from city employees, and it's impossible for his staff to review them all. For their part, rank-and-file employees are prohibited from taking gifts from entities that do business with the agency where they work.
"We don't have the personnel," he said. "We don't have the workforce to be able to do it. They're for the public and the press to review."
The forms are tucked into folders and envelopes, wrapped with rubber bands and stashed in metal filing cabinets spanning a couple of rooms in the Department of Legislative Reference's offices on the top floor of City Hall. The cabinets are not labeled, and Aisenstark said he does not know which are filed where.
Under the law, the board and its executive director are tasked with reviewing the ethics forms "from time to time," notifying individuals of omissions and mistakes, and launching investigations if warranted.
Members of the board, which meets once a month, are volunteers. Aisenstark earns $94,000 a year and has worked for the city for nearly two decades. Aisenstark sits in on their meetings, clarifying the city code and at times leading the discussion.
Aisenstark declined to comment on specific cases involving elected officials but said he would hold a training session soon to explain ethics rules to council members who are not in compliance.
Still, the lack of consistent review of the forms troubles ethics experts.
"If the ethics committee does not receive these disclosure forms, what's the point of having them?" asked Guy, who advised members of Rawlings-Blake's staff on how to properly complete them. "The system becomes a joke."
Christopher B. Summers, president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, said he believes city officials know how infrequently their ethics forms are scrutinized.
"They know how closely they can bend the rules without raising red flags," he said. "They know how disorganized and dysfunctional it is. Why bother submitting them? Why even have them?"
Paid in cash
Tickets received by city lawmakers garnered public attention in January when Young said he reached out to Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis — whom he views as a friend — to get access to his private box at M&T Bank Stadium to watch the playoff game with the Houston Texans.
Young said he was forced to do so because Rawlings-Blake demanded he return tickets to the city's skybox after he publicly criticized her administration's effort to hold another Grand Prix race on Baltimore's streets.
But Lewis also is a businessman whose company has worked with the city. He was part of a development team that had planned to build a shopping and sports entertainment complex near the stadium and that negotiated a $1.2 million settlement with the city when the deal fell through, clearing the way for a planned casino to be built on the site.
Young pledged to pay Lewis for the tickets after the gift came to light. Davis, Young's spokesman, said the councilman has paid Lewis but declined to provide documentation to show how much or when he paid for the tickets.
Since 2008, the council president reported receiving 24 tickets to skyboxes at Ravens games and to other events from people or entities who do business with the city.
In seven of those instances, the benefactors weren't event sponsors. Young said he paid for some of those tickets in cash. In other cases, he said he received oral approval from Aisenstark, the adviser to the ethics board. City law requires written approval from the board itself.
"They seek advice from an individual who is in a position to know and then make a decision," Davis said. "There has not been a more formal or clear process."
Aisenstark said he merely advises elected officials about the law and never grants oral approval of gifts they would otherwise be prohibited from receiving.
Davis said Young endeavors to go "above and beyond" the ethics code in terms of transparency.
"The council president's belief is that you don't just need to conform to the letter of the law," Davis said. "In each and every instance [of receiving tickets], there's a legitimate and legal answer."
In 2009, Young reported receiving Orioles tickets from telecommunications company Verizon, which has received about $20 million in city contracts since 2008. Young said he got oral approval from Aisenstark before he accepted the tickets.
Also that year, Young reported the Devils tickets from Gottesman. And In 2010, Young reported getting Ravens tickets fromtheCordish Cos., a Baltimore developer that has worked with the city on Power Plant Live and other projects. In both instances, Young told The Sun, he paid cash for the tickets he listed in ethics forms as gifts. A Cordish spokeswoman said Young did pay him, and Gottesman couldn't be reached.
Through his spokesman, Young declined to provide documentation of those cash payments, calling it a matter of "his personal finances."
Summers, president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, pointed out that Young could simply have contacted Ticketmaster if he wanted seats at sporting events.
"It's that incestuous relationship between developers and politicians," he said. "They continue to play the game."
Rawlings-Blake is known by ethics officials as a lawmaker who fills out her ethics forms in painstaking detail. Her reports are hundreds of pages in length.
Since 2008, Rawlings-Blake has listed receiving more than 100 tickets to 70 events.
The mayor frequently receives free tickets from 1st Mariner Arena General Manager Frank Remesch, who is allowed to invite the mayor to specific events under ethics law because he is an event sponsor. Rawlings-Blake has received tickets to shows by 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.
And in 2010, the mayor reported a gift of tickets to Le Reve dinner show at Wynn Resorts theater in Las Vegas, which she listed as having more than $150 in value, from Howard Perlow, executive vice president of Residential Title and Escrow Co. His company received about $35,000 in payments from the city in 2010. He did not respond to requests for comment.
When asked recently about the gift from Perlow, Rawlings-Blake's staff said her form was incorrect and that the tickets were provided by the Vegas hotel to Perlow for free. Therefore, the tickets had no value, and should be considered as coming from the hotel and not from Perlow, which would make the gift in line with the ethics code, they said.
The mayor's spokesman, Ryan O'Doherty, said Rawlings-Blake has a strong record on ethics issues, including introducing reforms that restructured the ethics board and made it more independent, closing gift loopholes that were abused during the Dixon administration, and increasing ethics training for her staff.
"Mayor Rawlings-Blakehas always gone above and beyond the reporting requirements of the city ethics code by providing voluminous disclosure statements for several years to promote transparency, and in each instance she followed the spirit of the code and maintained full compliance," he said.
The second-most-frequent reporter of gifts is Young, who lists gifts each year, though his forms are less detailed than the mayor's. For instance, Young sometimes lists the names of sporting events he attended but fails to say who gave him the tickets.
Most of the City Council's 15 members have not reported receiving any tickets over the three years. Others did not include the form on which to report gifts in their ethics filings.
CouncilwomanRochelle "Rikki" Spector, one of the few council members to fill out the form, included this handwritten note: "Attended public events to which City Council members were invited."
In an interview, Spector said the only events she attended were ones to which all council members were invited, though she said she couldn't recall specifics.
"I didn't take tickets from anyone else," said Spector. "If my sons or my grandsons want to go to a game, I buy a ticket."
Reisinger also did not list any gifts for any of the three years.
Reisinger said he wasn't trying to hide anything by not reporting the Devils hockey ticket he received for the January 2009 trip with Young, Cole and Gottesman; he just didn't think of attending the game as a gift.
"I'm not that great of a hockey fan," he said. "I don't even know the name of the team, to tell you the truth. It wasn't really a pleasure thing as far as I'm concerned."
Reisinger said he hadn't realized that the city's ethics laws required him to report the tickets. "I didn't think that I needed to do it," he said. "I guess it was my error."
Cole said he could see there being confusion about whether the tickets should be repaid. He included a letter to Gottesman in his ethics disclosure that said: "Given the restraints imposed by Baltimore City Ethics Code on gifts, please find enclosed a check payment to you in the amount of $237.50."
"I just felt it always better to pay my own way," he said. "It's easier that way. I prefer to pay. It can be very complicated to fill out some of those forms. If I'm in somebody's box, I reimburse them."
Cole said he has generally made a habit of refusing gifts.
"The most recent thing somebody offered me was a tie," he said. "It was from somebody I know, who doesn't do business with the city. My gut instinct was, 'It's a gift. Can I take this?' That's my first instinct."
Reisinger said the only other time he recalled receiving tickets to sporting events during his 18 years on the council was to the MedStar skybox at Camden Yards.
Reisinger said that when Aisenstark began leading ethics workshops with the council after Dixon's resignation, he asked the ethics director about the policy for accepting gifts, and specifically about the MedStar skybox to which company executives had routinely extended invitations to the council.
"Avery's response to us was 'Don't go,'" said Reisinger. "'If you're not sure, don't go.'"
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