Officials get free Terps tickets

Law bars lobbyists, not UM, from giving passes to lawmakers

April 07, 2000|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

A year after passing an ethics bill banning free sports tickets from lobbyists, influential legislators have still been receiving some of the hottest tickets in the state -- to Cole Field House to watch the University of Maryland men's basketball team.

The free tickets have come from the University of Maryland, College Park. Taking them is legal because the school is not considered a lobbying interest under Maryland ethics laws, though it receives hundreds of millions of dollars from the state every year.

At least 16 legislators received free tickets to Maryland basketball games in the 1999-2000 season, according to a list compiled by the school at The Sun's request.

Five of those were members of the budget committees, including Budget and Taxation Chairman Barbara A. Hoffman. University President C. D. "Dan" Mote Jr. says he purposefully invites legislators who influence his school's budget, which totals more than $1 billion in operating and capital spending, including about $435 million in state funds.

"We must have invited everybody [on the budget committees] at one time or another," said Mote, whose campus invites about 70 guests to each game.

"Our budget from the state is very large, and their understanding of our budget and what our needs and programs are is very important to us."

The General Assembly passed comprehensive ethics legislation last year that bars legislators from taking free meals, drinks or sports tickets from lobbyists. Legislators explicitly decided to exclude government institutions, such as the University of Maryland, from the ticket ban.

The plying of legislators with sports tickets by lobbyists has been a tradition in Annapolis. Last session, lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano gave hockey and basketball tickets worth $5,580 to three Baltimore delegates and a $50 Washington Redskins ticket to a Prince George's County senator.

Curb on lobbyists

Now, Bereano and other lobbyists are barred from providing such tickets.

But on a late February afternoon, Mote and a university lobbyist met Del. Peter Franchot outside a budget committee hearing room with this familiar greeting: "Here are your tickets for tomorrow night's game." Franchot, a Montgomery County Democrat, was on his way to one of the biggest games of the year, against the University of North Carolina Tarheels.

"I went to one basketball game at the invitation of the university. I don't think it's a big deal," said Franchot, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. "I was happy the team won."

Sen. Ulysses Currie, a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said that attending Terrapins games broadens his knowledge of the school.

`Like a site visit'

"For me, it's like a site visit," said Currie, who asked for tickets to the North Carolina game and went to a second game at Mote's invitation. "So I don't really see it as a perk."

The Prince George's Democrat said that going to the games helped him understand more about the basketball arena that will be replacing Cole Field House. Lawmakers have earmarked $26 million for the arena in the budget that was approved this week.

A citizen lobbying group says the tickets give the University of Maryland an unfair advantage in Annapolis.

"They have a significant stake in currying favor with the obviously highly placed officials who are getting the tickets," said Kathleen Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland.

"How can this activity be OK when it's not OK for anybody else who has millions and millions of dollars at stake? There's absolutely no justification for exempting the university system from the gift prohibitions that apply to everyone else."

Mote said he feels the university's situation is different from those of other lobbying interests in Annapolis.

"We're a state agency, and it helps us for them to understand what we're about," he said.

Mote said the complimentary tickets -- which the school prices at $17 or $25 each, depending on the game -- aren't as valuable as the chance to talk with a legislator about programs at the school.

`Good opportunity'

"Sporting events are a pretty good opportunity, because for a couple hours, if they're sitting right next to you, they can't get away from you," said Mote, who sits close to the court with some guests and visits others in the luxury boxes at halftime.

The budget committee members who attended games this year were Hoffman, Currie and Baltimore Democrat Nathaniel J. McFadden in the Senate, and Franchot and Prince George's Democrat Rushern L. Baker III in the House. Ten other delegates and a senator also received free tickets to UM games, according to the school.

Other high-ranking state and local officials also received free tickets this season.

State Treasurer Richard N. Dixon, who, as a member of the Board of Public Works, oversees construction contracts at the uni- versity, often asks for tickets, Mote said. Dixon received free tickets to four Maryland basketball contests, including games against Kentucky and North Carolina.

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