In an opinion released Wednesday, board members wrote that they believe the acceptance of tickets to 1st Mariner was permitted under a contract with the venue, but said they were "troubled" by the way the tickets have been distributed. Rawlings-Blake got dozens of tickets to distribute to sold-out concerts.
The panel called on the administration to develop a list of "legitimate city purposes" for which the tickets could be used. Rawlings-Blake's office says it has developed new guidelines that would meet that requirement while continuing to allow friends and family to attend events free of charge.
The board launched an inquiry into the matter in September, citing concerns after The Baltimore Sun reported that Rawlings-Blake's office received hundreds of tickets each year to events at the city-owned arena.
The mayor — accompanied by relatives and top aides — used the free tickets to attend several sold-out concerts, including those featuring Rihanna and Jay-Z.
For instance, the mayor's office received 34 tickets to last year's sold-out Sade concert, which kicked off the reclusive musician's first North American tour in a decade, city records show. Rawlings-Blake got 10 of those tickets to distribute at her discretion, top aide Kaliope Parthemos received four and others in the mayor's office claimed a total of six tickets. Six more tickets went to other elected officials who were not identified in the documents, and six went to unnamed community members.
"The logs that purported to track [ticket] distribution were not maintained in a way that allowed the Board to discern precisely who ultimately used the property or what legitimate City purpose was served by its distribution," the opinion states. "It is not possible to determine whether or not a particular distribution served a city purpose or instead represented an improper use of an official's position for the private gain of themselves."
Board members said they could not tell whether anyone had violated ethics rules, but believed any wrongdoing would have been inadvertent. The report pointed out that past administrations have also received scores of free tickets to the arena.
Still, the board said, it is important to develop better accounting of the tickets in order to avoid any appearance of impropriety.
Linda B. "Lu" Pierson, chairwoman of the ethics board, said the panel's opinion should apply to all city agencies that get free tickets to events. City officials also have access to tickets for Pier Six, M&T Bank Stadium, Oriole Park at Camden Yards and other venues.
Pierson said the board was concerned by what it perceived as poor record-keeping by city officials, including an inability to find the contract that governs the city's relationship with 1st Mariner Arena.
"We did find that troubling," she said. The board based its opinion on an old contract, written in 1988, and believes the same provisions still apply.
Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said the administration was pleased by the report, which he said shows the tickets were "lawfully provided and justified." He said the administration has developed a list of acceptable reasons to distribute the tickets, which will be in effect starting Jan. 1.
But government watchdog group Common Cause expressed concern about the list, which includes a provision to allow "the Mayor and friends and family with the reasonable opportunity to attend the ticketed events in support of a given venue."
"They're missing the point," said James Browning, the director of Common Cause's Mid-Atlantic division. "The pattern of giveaways to relative and supporters is part of the problem. If they're really going to claim that perks for family and supporters are city purposes, how are they going to prove an economic or civic benefit in that?"
Even so, Browning said the ethics board's opinion was a step in the right direction.
"It's a good decision that puts the focus on the fact that the use of these tickets should be accounted for in the same way as other city resources," he said.
Pierson said she was glad to learn City Hall planned to set criteria for awarding tickets, and didn't see an issue with the mayor giving passes to some events to friends and family.
"I think it's a legitimate city purpose for the mayor to attend an event with her family," Pierson said.
The mayor's office suspended distribution of the tickets in September while awaiting the results of the ethics board's investigation, O'Doherty said. The administration will resume accepting and distributing tickets under new guidelines, which will govern distribution of free tickets to 1st Mariner and other major venues.