SF Elected Officials Sit at Stick for Free

Luxury Box Seats Go to Lawmakers Despite Ethics Concerns

All you die-hard 49ers fans- to see your team at Candlestick, you’ve probably paid hundreds.

But if you get elected in San Francisco- you can see the action up-close for free.

Season tickets, parking passes and luxury boxes are all part of the package deal for influential San Francisco leaders.

The tickets are a perk that dates back decades and puts politics and power at an ethical crossroad.

“The relationship between the supervisors and Candlestick Park and the 49ers is really a corrupt relationship,” San Francisco-based attorney and ethicist Peter Keane tells the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit. 

“It’s a situation that simply doesn’t pass the smell test,” Keane says.

Here’s how it works: The city of San Francisco has retained seats at Candlestick Park for every 49er Game dating back to a 1987 amendment of the lease.

It includes 12 luxury box tickets for the mayor, 12 luxury box tickets for the General Manager of the Recreation and Parks Department, 20 luxury box tickets for the Recreation and Parks Commission, 10 other stadium seats for the Recreation and Parks Department and another 22 stadium seats for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

A total of 76 free tickets for every game.

Plus, parking passes, valued at $30 per game.

It’s all laid out in the lease the city has with the 49ers which details that group of seats as being exempt from the lease. That means the city rents all of Candlestick park to the 49ers except those designated seats.

It’s a justification that avoids state laws limiting any gift to politicians.

We’ll explain that in a moment.

First, let’s see who attended:

Mayor Ed Lee tells us he attended about 3 games this year. City records show Mayor Lee received 15 tickets for every game and gave most of them to local non-profits.

Public records show 7 of the 11 San Francisco Supervisors accepted free tickets this season and attended games:

Eric Mar, District 1
Mark Farrell, District 2
Carmen Chu, District 4
Jane Kim, District 6
Scott Weiner, District 8
Malia Cohen, District 10
John Avalos, District 11

“For the NFC Championship game, you decided to pay for your ticket. Why?” Kovaleski asks Board of Supervisors President, David Chiu.

“It just felt like the right thing to do,” Chiu explains, “It was a personal decision.”

Instead of taking the free ride, for the NFC Championship game, the President of the Board of Supervisors reimbursed the city for his tickets.

Supervisor Malia Cohen of District 10 also paid for her NFC Championship game tickets.

Supervisor John Avalos had no problem accepting the tickets throughout the season, going to some games and giving others away, a practice allowed by the city.

“The championship game the other day, I gave them to my mother in law, so she went with a friend of hers,” Avalos tells NBC Bay Area.

California Government Code 89503 puts a cap on the value of gifts local and state lawmakers can accept in a calendar year. Effective January 1, 2011, that limit is $420.

 “They’re public officials, they work for the public, the public has a right to look into this and know what they’re doing,” Bill Lenkeit, Senior Counsel at the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) tells NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit.

The FPPC is an ethics commission of sorts that oversees the public accountability of California public officials.

In September 2009 the FPPC passed this regulation requiring all government agencies distributing tickets to identify a public purpose for the gifting of tickets, making them exempt from gift-laws.  It also mandates the agency fill out a form and post it online, detailing the number of tickets given, who received them and the public purpose for the tickets.

“They’re supposed to serve a public purpose,” Lenkeit says, “more than just going out there and having a hot dog and a beer and watching a game. They’re supposed to be doing something to serve the public.”

“They are justifying it by saying they are serving some sort of purpose by going to the game,” NBC Bay Area Chief Investigator Tony Kovaleski explains to ethicist Keane.

“The only purpose they are serving is having a good time at the game and getting something for free that you and I have to pay for,” Keane responds.

The city uses broad terms like “increasing public exposure” or “increasing public awareness” or “gathering public input on city facilities” as their listed public purposes for attending games which you can view here.

So how does Supervisor Avalos explain the tickets he gave to his mother-in-law?

“Did she have a public purpose for being there?” Kovaleski asks Supervisor Avalos.

“Did she have a public purpose for being there?” Avalos pauses, “No, she had a personal purpose for being there.”

“How do you take criticism that you got free tickets to give away to your mother in law?” Kovaleski asks Supervisor Avalos.

“It could be a valid concern,” the supervisor responds.

A valid concern over a perk for San Francisco’s most powerful now with calls for public accountability some are rethinking the status quo.

“I think I am going to put an end to it for me, personally,” Supervisor Avalos says about taking the 49ers tickets.

“We’ve talked to ethicists and they say this practice should come to an end,” Kovaleski tells Board President Chiu, “what’s your position?”

“I think I could probably support that,” Chiu says.

“This is the first time anybody has questioned it,” Lenkeit with the FPPC tells us, “we’re glad that it’s being questioned,” he says, “if we need to look into it further, we definitely will.”

Mayor Lee tells us he will ask the city attorney to take a closer look to see if there are any problems as well.

Do you have a story we should investigate?  Contact: TheUnit@NBCBayArea.com

 Click here for Part 2: Question for the city's Rec and Park Department.

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