City says it can't find contract governing mayor's free 1st Mariner tickets

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Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's law office says it can't find the current contract it has argued allows her to accept free 1st Mariner Arena tickets, but can find an older, 1988-version of the agreement with the arena that permits the behavior.

"After an exhaustive search with the Comptroller's Office, the City's official archives of all Board of Estimate's [sic] records in the Legislative Reference Department, the records of the Finance Department, the records of the Law Department, and a records request to SMG, the final signed 1998 contract has not been located," Baltimore City Solicitor George Nilson wrote in a letter to ethics board director Avery Aisenstark.

Although he cannot find the current contract, Nilson said he has concluded that it permitted 1st Mariner to award 35 free tickets to Rawlings-Blake per event, as available.

"Regardless of whether or not the unlocated 1998 Agreement contained express complimentary ticket provisions, the Law Department has concluded that it was the intent and practice of the parties ... that the complimentary tickets were part of the terms of the 1998 Agreement," Nilson wrote.

Nilson also submitted to the ethics board a letter from 1st Mariner General Manager Frank Remesch that said Rawlings-Blake had used fewer free tickets than previous administrations.

"It has always been the practice to provide the mayor's office with a small portion of complimentary tickets when available," Remesch wrote. "... Due to the ever-changing climate, the current administration has received fewer complimentary tickets than the prior administrations."

The 1988 agreement, signed during former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's administration, provided for other free ticket provisions, including requiring the management to honor 30 "lifetime gold passes" and 33 transferable passes to the arena. The contract said the mayor would select recipients if the passes were transferred or expired.

On Monday, Nilson turned over the documents, but too late for the city's ethics board to consider them at its meeting Tuesday.

Aisenstark, a city employee who serves as the panel's director, said he received a large stack of documents from the law office but did not have time to make copies for board members, delaying the panel's inquiry into the mayor's use of the tickets.

The documents include the 1988 contract between the arena and the city, lists of people who received the free tickets and documents soliciting proposals for new management for the arena. Many of the documents are the same as those turned over to the news media last month.

The board last month launched an inquiry, citing concerns about the distribution of free tickets to the mayor's family and staff. 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 shows featuring Rihanna and Jay-Z.

Nilson, whose office responded to the ethics board's inquiry, said the board received some of the documents a week ago. He said the package delivered to the panel Monday was the culmination of research into several agencies going back more than 20 years.

The ethics board next meets Oct. 11.

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, Ryan O'Doherty, said weeks ago 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.

"Mayor Rawlings-Blake has made ethics a top priority of her administration, and welcomes any review of this long-standing policy that goes back several decades and administrations," O'Doherty said this week. "Event tickets are not paid for with taxpayer funds and there is zero evidence that any part of this is out of the ordinary or improper. The City, like many others across the country, provides hundreds of complimentary tickets from the City-owned facility to hard-working employees, school students, elected officials, youth leagues, community groups, and charitable organizations."