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News Opinion Editorial

Ethics board scores a near miss

The Baltimore ethics board came close to showing some real backbone this week in seeking higher standards for the mayor's use of free tickets she gets to the city's sports stadiums and 1st Mariner Arena. The board is demanding better record keeping and that each ticket be used for a legitimate city purpose. Unfortunately, the mayor's administration is proposing to define "legitimate city purpose" so broadly as to make the restriction meaningless, and the board appears inclined to go along with her.

There is no indication that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has used the tickets differently than her predecessors. Mayors have been getting free tickets to the city's arena since it was built in the 1960s, and the deal that led to the construction of Baltimore's baseball and football stadiums included the provision of a skybox for the mayor in each. From the beginning, mayors have been using the boxes as they see fit — sometimes passing tickets along to community groups or as rewards for exceptional city employees, but also often using them for their own entertainment or to reward friends and allies.

The ethics board, admirably, did not view precedent as a sufficient justification for treating a public asset as a private perk. After The Sun reported on Mayor Rawlings-Blake's use of the 1st Mariner tickets — she and her family and friends took advantage of them to go to some of the hottest shows in town — the board decided to launch an investigation. But it discovered that the city's record keeping was so poor that it could not properly evaluate whether any ethics violations had occurred. Nor was the city able to produce a current copy of its contract with 1st Mariner to verify the terms by which the tickets are provided.

The logs of tickets would indicate, for example, that the mayor distributed 10 tickets but would not say to whom or for what reason. That's not good enough, and the board is now asking for detailed logs to be kept that list the names and titles of the recipients and a justification for each. The mayor has agreed to do so and to publish them. These tickets are public assets just as much as taxpayer dollars are, and the public deserves to know exactly how they are being used.

The board said it would violate the ethics code for the city to solicit or accept more tickets than called for in the contract (about 35 per show), and it said the mayor should develop a list of "legitimate city purposes" for which these tickets can be used. A spokesman for Ms. Rawlings-Blake says the city's law department has already done so, and they will go into effect Jan 1. That's where the trouble lies.

The purposes the new policy outlines include: to thank community leaders; as part of economic development efforts; to reward city employees or officials for good work; and to provide the mayor and her friends and family with a "reasonable opportunity" to attend events to support the venue.

How exactly does it "support the venue" for the mayor to attend a Jay-Z concert, or for her family to snag tickets for Rihanna? Is this the Roman coliseum, and is she the emperor waving down to the masses?

Though the situation is not completely comparable, it's worth thinking about the mayor's use of these tickets in the context of what would be acceptable for an executive in the private sector to consider a valid business expense. The IRS provides extensive guidance on this issue (Publication 463, for those following along at home).

Business entertainment expenses are deductible, the IRS says, if the main purpose of the entertainment was the active conduct of business, you engage in business during event, and you have an expectation that the event will lead to a specific business benefit. They can also be deducted if they are "associated" with business — that is, the event is designed to help you get new business or cement an existing relationship, and the business discussion took place directly before or after the event.

Under that rubric, using tickets to a show to wine and dine a business owner considering expanding in Baltimore would make sense. Going to a show with friends would not.

Unfortunately, Ethics Board Chairwoman Linda B. "Lu" Pierson has accepted the mayor's contention that such use of free tickets is acceptable. She should think again. If such a broad interpretation of "legitimate city business" is allowed to stand, then nothing will change.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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