[Alameda County] Ethics probe clears Oakland mayor, council member for heavy sports ticket use

Blog note: this article references a grand jury report released in June 2018.
The Oakland ethics commission cleared the mayor and a City Council member in its probe of the officials’ use of free tickets to sporting events, including the NBA finals, according to documents released Friday.
The decision came despite Mayor Libby Schaaf personally using $54,000 worth of tickets and City Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney personally using $320,000 in tickets. The Public Ethics Commission has yet to complete its investigations into other Oakland officials.
Every year, Oakland and Alameda County officials receive thousands of free tickets to games and concerts at Oracle Arena and the Coliseum. The publicly owned sporting complex that’s leased to the Raiders, Warriors and A’s is overseen by the same East Bay officials who get the ticket perks, creating a slew of concerns around conflicts of interest and use of public resources.
Under California law, tickets normally would be considered gifts to government officials and thus subject to a strict monetary cap of $470 from a single source in a given year. Oakland’s restriction is even tighter: $250. If the gift giver is doing business with the official, as the sports teams do, the maximum shrinks to $50.
But Oakland and Alameda County created exemptions that allow officials to use or give away the tickets for “public purposes,” so the gift rules don’t apply.
For instance, city and county officials can claim on reporting forms that they are conducting personal “oversight” of the facilities by attending games or concerts, or they can give away the tickets to deserving community activists, students or city employees.
The commission — which is also investigating every other City Council member and additional Oakland officials for similar actions — said Schaaf and McElhaney did not misuse public resources as defined by the city ticket policy, but it slammed the policy itself.
“The long-standing practice of handing large batches of Oakland Coliseum and Oracle Arena tickets to elected officials under an outdated policy, combined with a cavalier attitude and ineffective system of reporting tickets, results in these tickets being used by city officials and staff as if they were a perk — or tickets going unused or unreported — in contrast to the public purpose for which the gift exemption was intended,” commissioners said.
They have recommended policy changes, which the City Council may take up later this year.
Had the commission found Schaaf and McElhaney culpable, they would have been on the hook for up to $5,000 per violation, or three times the value of the gifts, whichever was greater.
An Alameda County civil grand jury investigated the sports ticket issue, too, and called it a “bonanza” that needed a top-to-bottom overhaul. The probe, released in June, found that county officials reserve the highest-value tickets for themselves and have no uniform, publicized process for public employees or community organizations to apply for the tickets. Instead, officials often hand them out to the same staff members over and over again.
“No reports are ever generated by officials following their visits, suggesting that the so-called ‘public purposes’ are merely a vehicle for attending exciting games and concerts without having to declare the ticket values as gifts or income,” the grand jury said.
The Oakland commission, meanwhile, found that Schaaf used 18 tickets for personal use — valued at $54,000 — for the “oversight” exemption. McElhaney used 73 tickets — worth about $320,000 — to do the same.
Their personal ticket use “included NBA playoff tickets with a face-value of $5,000 each, and NBA finals tickets with a face-value of $10,000 each,” the commission said.
The investigation covered only the window between Jan. 1, 2015, and Sept. 24, 2016.
“The report shows that the tickets made available to the mayor’s office were properly documented in a timely and transparent manner,” said Justin Berton, a spokesman for Schaaf. “The mayor’s office regularly donates tickets to Oakland charities or provides them to schools and nonprofits to auction for the benefit of all residents.”
McElhaney did not immediately return requests for comment Friday.
Schaaf told ethics commission investigators that as mayor, “she is expected to have a certain minimal awareness of Oakland sports teams and their facilities, so she tries to go to at least one game a year for each team,” the investigators wrote in their findings.
While McElhaney was cleared of ethics violations in the ticket probe, she is set to be fined $8,625 for a different investigation by the commission.
In that matter, an administrative law judge found that McElhaney had inappropriately accepted gifts from a restricted source who was doing business with the city, made governmental decisions in which she had a financial interest and failed to disclose the gifts she received from the restricted source on her annual statement of economic interests.
The probe stemmed from McElhaney’s interference in a town house project next to her West Oakland home during which she enlisted the help of a city contractor to oppose the development. The councilwoman told the judge that she did so on behalf of her neighbors and disliked the developer being an outsider to Oakland.
During the probe, the judge noted, McElhaney repeatedly failed to comply with subpoenas issued by the city’s ethics investigators.
August 31, 2018
San Francisco Chronicle
By Kimberly Veklerov
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