[Alameda County] Two years later: Who is still taking free Oracle Arena tickets?

Blog note: this article references a grand jury report on the subject.

OAKLAND — Nearly two years after this news organization’s investigation into East Bay politicians hoarding free tickets to marquee events at the Oakland Coliseum and Oracle Arena, a review of recent records shows high ticket use among elected officials and their staffs — and sloppy reporting about it — continues.

The city, county and the joint powers authority which operates the publicly-owned arena and stadium each get a suite with 16 seats at the two venues, under agreements with the teams. Officials who use those tickets must fill out forms required by the state Fair Political Practices Commission stating who got the tickets and the public purpose for attending, such as to inspect the facility’s operations, or rewarding community volunteers and students.

Over the past year, three members of the Coliseum authority took free tickets to nearly every event at the Oakland coliseum and arena, and some top county officials including Administrator Susan Muranishi and Supervisor Keith Carson failed to document who used them.

An Oakland Council member took tickets to Warriors playoff games, reporting on the FPPC forms filed with the city that he was inspecting the arena, but told this news organization he gave the tickets to his kids.

And in May, several Oakland employees took free tickets to a Taylor Swift concert at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, even though the stadium is out of their jurisdiction.

Such behavior continues despite ongoing investigations of the ticket policy by the Oakland Ethics Commission and a scathing Alameda County Grand Jury report released in June which said county officials used the freebies to expensive games and concerts as a “perk.”

The grand jury report also found that the tickets, if not used by the officials themselves, were often distributed to the same staffers over and over again — usually as a job performance reward — while other employees were shut out.

“A big part of the problem is that the ticket policy is corrupt and invites corrupt behavior,” said Stephen Shefler, a retired chief deputy U.S. Attorney for Northern California and former member of the Oakland Ethics Commission. “It is an open invitation to abuse.”

This news organization’s October 2016 investigation showed officials over three seasons claimed more than 7,000 tickets worth millions of dollars to Golden State Warriors’ games, often going themselves or giving them away to politically connected individuals. Since the 2016 investigation, the use of high-priced tickets, particularly to Warriors games, decreased but did not stop.

A review of Golden State Warriors playoff games and high-priced concerts in 2017 and 2018 found:

  • Oakland councilmembers Lynette Gibson McElhaney, Dan Kalb and Annie Campbell Washington each took two tickets for themselves and family members to see Michelle Obama speak at Oracle in March. The VIP tickets worth $1,000 included a photo-op with the former First Lady. Four other tickets went to council aides.

  • Top county officials continue not to list ticket recipients, a problem identified in the grand jury report. Muranishi gobbled up tickets to nine 2018 Warrior playoff games, listing most as simply taken by the “county administrator’s office” without names. Supervisor Keith Carson did the same for eight Obama tickets. Neither official replied to a request for comment.

  • Coliseum authority records show that three members of its board — former Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, Chris Dobbins, and Yui Hay Lee — attended each Warriors home playoff game this year, and took dozens of A’s and Raiders tickets. Each said on forms they were investigating the “efficiencies of operations” at Oracle Arena in their official capacity.

  • Relatives still receive tickets. Records show Supervisor Scott Haggerty gave four Lionel Richie concert tickets to his wife, Rhonda. His form listed the face value of $400 per ticket. Chris Miley, son of Supervisor Nate Miley, took four tickets to see a Fall Out Boy concert. Four Bruno Mars tickets went from Carson to his wife, Maria with a public purpose of promoting attendance at area events.

In one unusual case, city officials took 28 free tickets valued at $115 each to the May 11 Taylor Swift concert in Santa Clara. Councilwoman Campbell Washington reported taking six tickets for herself and family, while Mayor Libby Schaaf gave tickets to city Director of Housing Security Darin Ranelletti. Others allocated to the offices of Schaaf, Gibson McElhaney, Kalb and Rebecca Kaplan went to council aides or staff. Kalb also gave two tickets to a school and Kaplan issued four to a community activist. Supervisor Carson accepted eight tickets, saying they went to staff but did not identify individuals.

Santa Clara City Manager Deanna Santana said the stadium authority that operates Levi’s Stadium does not provide free tickets to leaders of that city for sporting events and concerts. A government ethics expert said the Taylor Swift tickets should be considered differently than the ones Oakland and Alameda County receive for coliseum and arena events. According to obtained emails, the tickets came to the county and City Hall by way of the concert promoter, who gave them to the company which operates the Coliseum property.

“By accepting gifts from vendors the question arises, are they acting in the public interest or their own interest,” said Hana Callahan, of Santa Clara University Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. “It creating an appearance if impropriety.” It also appears questionable because Levi’s Stadium “is not in their jurisdiction,” she added.

Shefler was highly critical of using the free tickets to the concert. “It is obvious that Council(member) Washington went to see Taylor Swift for the purpose of enjoying the concert,” and not in an official capacity required under the city’s ticket policy, he said. Campbell Washington and Carson did not respond to inquiries about the Swift show.

The city’s ethics commission currently has open investigations into city leaders’ previous use of Oracle and Coliseum tickets. Two of them involving Schaaf and Gibson McElhaney are complete, but on Sept. 11, the commission declined to approve commission staff findings that the pair did not violate ethics laws, mainly because the city’s ticket policy is so broad that it is difficult to enforce. The commission plans to take up the issue again at a meeting next week.

Gibson McElhaney attended 73 events worth $320,000 at the Coliseum complex between January 2015 and September 2016, according to commission records. Schaaf personally took 18 sets of tickets valued at $54,000.

Next month, the City Council could consider changes to the ticket policy proposed by the ethics commission in a report last year. In the report, the commission accused city leaders of having a “cavalier attitude” about the tickets and encouraged them to give them away to community groups, students and nonprofits.

Most council members have stopped or slowed the taking of Warrior playoff tickets. Over the past two years, when the team won back-to-back NBA championships, Schaaf, Campbell Washington and Gibson McElhaney each attended one playoff game. More often than in previous years, council members gave tickets to community members, schools or nonprofits. Schaaf’s office helped raised $25,000 to nonprofits by auctioning off 2018 playoff tickets.

The only other council member listed as taking playoff tickets was Noel Gallo. Online forms show he took two tickets to 12 games, each time listing the reason as evaluating “the ability of a facility, its operator, or a local sports team to attract business and contribute to the local economy.” On Wednesday, Gallo said he did not go to any of the games. His children did, he said.

“Next year I’m not going to take any tickets,” he said. “All the paperwork … I don’t have time for that.”

Councilman Abel Guillen has stopped taking or giving out tickets all together “until we reform the current policy,” he said. From 2014-2016, Guillen gave at least 23 tickets to people who worked for his campaigns or donated to them. He also gave two tickets worth $1,400 to then-Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, who did not report the gift on his state ethics form until contacted by this news agency.

Councilman Larry Reid topped the 2016 list of ticket takers, claiming 356 which he said he gave to family and residents. Records show Gibson McElhaney took 163 tickets, making her second on the city’s list behind Reid. But over the past year, there are zero ticket forms signed by Reid, who as a member of the joint powers authority, has access to both the city suite and the joint powers authority suite.

The issue will soon be moot: the Warriors leave for San Francisco in 2019, the Raiders are moving to Las Vegas, and the A’s plan to build a privately-financed stadium. Still, Kaplan wants to abolish the practice.

“I am advocating to end (it),” Kaplan said. “We could use the money to meet vital public needs instead.”

September 29, 2018

The Reporter

By David Debolt and Thomas Peele

County: