City Council president says he'll pay back Ray Lewis for tickets to private skybox

Rawlings-Blake and Young in happier times.
Rawlings-Blake and Young in happier times. (The Baltimore Sun)

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young promised Wednesday to pay Ray Lewis for tickets to the Ravens linebacker's private skybox at Sunday's sold-out playoff game, saying he wanted to follow an ethics law the City Council approved just four months ago to ban such gifts.

Lester Davis, a spokesman for Young, said the council president is working to figure out the cost of the tickets for Young and his wife, who attended the 20-13 divisional win over Houston. The game sold out within 15 minutes of the tickets going on sale. Most tickets sold for several hundred dollars, though access to Lewis' private box could be valued at several times the cost of a stadium seat.

Young turned to Lewis for the sought-after game tickets after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake rescinded an invitation to him and his wife to join her in the city's skybox. The snub came after the council president criticized her administration's support for the beleaguered Grand Prix race, according to several sources familiar with the matter.

Davis said Wednesday that Young would disclose the tickets as a gift on city ethics forms and that he had always intended to pay Lewis for the tickets.

Young is "going to be working directly with Ray," Davis said. "He has a relationship with Ray. He has a relationship with Ray's family. ... He wants to make sure what he's doing is exactly right to the letter of the law."

Lewis is not only a family friend of the East Baltimore politician but also a businessman whose company has worked with the city. The City Council enacted reforms in September that made it illegal for council members to accept tickets to sporting events as gifts from people who do business with the city.

Susan Wichmann, executive director of the government-watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, said the situation shows how politicians can use their connections to get perks.

"Citizens rightfully become concerned about special access being granted and quid pro quo situations when it's access that a normal citizen wouldn't have," Wichmann said. "There might not be anything untoward about it, but he's getting access a normal citizen wouldn't."

The City Council and the mayor approved the new regulations after a 2010 state law required local governments to make their ethics laws as stringent as those that govern state lawmakers. According to Maryland's handbook for state lawmakers: "Sports tickets are never legal gifts from a non-governmental donor, although sports tickets may be purchased by a legislator for face value."

A Ravens spokesman said Lewis would not comment on the situation.

Lewis was part of a development team that had been granted the rights in 2007 to build an office, shopping and sports entertainment complex on a plot off Russell Street — a site now slated for a city casino. The move to set that site aside for a casino led to a settlement between the city and the developer, Gateway South LLC, of which Lewis has an ownership stake.

The Board of Estimates, the city's spending board where Young serves as chairman, approved that $1.2 million settlement payment to Gateway South in June. Under the settlement, Lewis' team gave up its rights to the land.

Davis said Young "always conforms to the letter and spirit of the law" and pointed out that he has a friendship with Lewis. In 2010, Young hosted a ceremony naming the corner of North Avenue and Broadway "Ray Lewis Way," in honor of the linebacker's volunteer efforts. Lewis hands out Thanksgiving meals for the needy at the intersection each year.

When Lewis visited Abbottston Elementary School later that year to promote his "Ray Lewis 52 Foundation," Young was on hand to help with event.

The flap between Rawlings-Blake and Young stemmed from the council president's op-ed article in The Baltimore Sun last week criticizing the mayor's continued efforts to find a group to run the Grand Prix race, sources said. Young said the administration should focus instead on improving programs for youths, like rec centers and pools.

"What does it say about our priorities as a city when we will move heaven and Earth to continue a street race but will turn our backs on our most vulnerable citizens?" Young wrote.

The city severed its contract with the organizers of the inaugural race after that company accrued $12 million in debts, including close to $2 million owed to the city.

Rawlings-Blake spokesman Ryan O'Doherty accused Young last week of flip-flopping. "If we are able to revive the event with a new company, he is certainly entitled to change his political position again, depending on what's popular at the moment," he said.

Young fired back that O'Doherty "does not know his front from his back."

The administration, in asking Young to return the Ravens tickets, informed him that his presence in the M&T Bank Stadium skybox would disturb the mayor's supporters, the sources said.

But while he had sparred with Young last week, O'Doherty on Wednesday called Young "an honest leader with a strong ethical compass and we have no reason to believe otherwise."

City Council members said that the mayor has controlled the guest list for the city's skybox at Ravens games since the stadium was built.

"That's the way it's traditionally been done," said longtime Councilman Robert W. Curran. He said he had joined previous mayors Kurt Schmoke, Martin O'Malley and Sheila Dixon in the skybox and that he had been Rawlings-Blake's guest this year and last.

"I'm with the mayor on a lot of legislation," said Curran, adding that he did not think that was the "criteria" for receiving an invitation.

Council Vice President Edward Reisinger, who attended Sunday's game in the city skybox, said several of the mayor's relatives and city staffers were there. Reisinger, the floor leader for Rawlings-Blake on the council, said he also watched a game last year from the skybox.

Councilman Bill Henry, who has often publicly disagreed with Rawlings-Blake, chuckled when asked if he had been invited to the skybox.

"I have not been offered the chance to attend a football game since the last mayoral administration," said Henry.

Henry wondered why the mayor would have the sole right to decide who can sit in the box when city government is usually considered the "mayor and city council." For example, city-owned properties are described on legal documents as belonging to the mayor and city council and lawsuits against the city usually name the mayor and city council as plaintiffs.

Henry applauded Young for paying Lewis for the tickets and said he was "disappointed" that Rawlings-Blake had rescinded her skybox offer based on a political dispute.

"I would like to think that rooting for the Ravens transcends policy positions," he said.





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