Washington, D.C.’s mayor and the D.C. Council are receiving another round of scrutiny over their usage of special suite tickets at the Verizon Center and Nationals Park.
D.C.’s top elected officials have long been given access to a cache of private suite seats at the two major event complexes, through agreements reached years ago.
But despite an initial series of media reports and public scrutiny over how city leaders use and distribute those tickets, a new review by the News4 I-Team revealed the government’s record-keeping remains incomplete. It also showed tickets at dozens of events went unused or were given to political VIPs, including former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty.
The perk is well-known among D.C. leaders and government aides. D.C. Council members each get two tickets in Jefferson Level Suite 61 at Nats Park, as well as access to a suite at Verizon Center. The Office of the Mayor gets about 20 tickets to suite 63 at Nats Park and “Executive Level Suite 207” at Verizon. The suites are estimated to be a six-figure value for the D.C. government. Online advertisements show the annual price of the ballpark suites begins at $165,000 per year. Second-hand ticket brokers charge thousands of dollars per-event for concerts and big games at similar suites at Verizon.
A decades-old land agreement with Verizon Center specified “a luxury suite” be made available to district officials “in furtherance of economic development” in the District.
The I-Team, under the Freedom of Information Act, requested from the D.C. Council and Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office a log of all tickets distributed in 2015 and 2016, including the recipients of the tickets. The Council provided logs for only some of its members. Many of those logs listed only partial names of ticket recipients.
Lists of ticket users were made available only for the cache of tickets given to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Councilmembers David Grosso, Mary Cheh, Kenyan McDuffie and Elissa Silverman. A council spokesperson said there is no requirement councilmembers maintain records on how they distribute their tickets.
The mayor’s office provided a more complete set of records, though for some events, names of recipients were not included.
- Mayor Bowser 2015
- Mayor Bowser 2016
- Chairman Mendelson
- Councilmember Cheh 2015
- Councilmember Cheh 2016
- Councilmember Grosso
- Councilmember McDuffie
- Councilmember Silverman
The I-Team’s review of the mayor’s ticket distribution revealed former and current top city officials attended a majority of the events at Verizon and Nats Park since January 2015. Fenty, who served as mayor until 2011, was listed as a ticket recipient for some of the biggest events, including concerts by Bruce Springsteen, Rihanna, Justin Bieber and the 2016 ACC Tournament. He also was listed as a recipient of tickets for Washington Wizards and Capitals games, including a February game in which celebrity chef Spike Mendelsohn was listed as joining him in the suite.
Councilmember Silverman said the suite tickets are too often used for VIPs and should instead be doled out to constituents or charities who don’t have the money to afford event tickets on their own.
“If you look who’s in the box, it’s a lot of the same people,” she said. “It’s people with prestigious jobs in District government or people connected to District government.”
The I-Team’s review found relatives of the mayor, agency executives and the mayor’s allies on the D.C. Council, including Councilmember LaRuby May, were frequently listed as ticket recipients. D.C.’s police chief was listed as attending an April concert by Duran Duran. The mayor’s relatives attended several Nats games and the Rihanna concert. High-ranking city aide John Falcicchio attended a series of events, including the Springsteen concert and the Ringling Brothers circus.
Mayor Bowser’s office declined requests for an interview with the I-Team
“Tickets go to a wide array of District stakeholders including community groups, employees, non-profits, and individuals,” a spokesman said in a statement. “Tickets are given for a variety of reasons, including to help support community groups and public schools, or to thank government employees for their hard work. In the spirit of transparency, the Executive Office of the Mayor makes lists of those who received tickets from this office available each year.”
Silverman said she’s troubled by the gaps in ticket record keeping found by the I-Team, including the absence of names in some of the logs.
“It should be known who benefits,” she said. “It’s their tax dollars being spent. Anytime it’s their tax dollars being spent, they have the right to know how it’s being spent.”
The I-Team review found several occasions in which charities or youth groups were given access to the suite tickets, including girl scouts, a Ward 8 church group and food banks. For some events, police officers or firefighters were listed as attendees.
The mayor’s office provided the DC Stars youth hockey club access to a 2016 Capitals game against the Vancouver Canucks. Club organizer John Sager said his club provides athletic opportunities to students throughout D.C., while also providing academic support and teamwork building.
“It was a very nice gesture,” he said. “We don’t get enough chances to get together off the ice. It was great to get together and enjoy the hockey game in the company of each other.”
Silverman said a system should be implemented to provide more – or all – of the government’s slate of suite tickets to the youth, charity and constituent groups.
“There could be a benefit ... in making sure this is truly for our residents,” she said.
“When they have a taxpayer funded stadium like Nats Park and politicians are using it to curry favor with other politicians, all residents of Washington, D.C., need to know who is in that suite," David Williams of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance said.
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.