The Suite Life: Free tickets among perks for sports authority board members | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Suite Life: Free tickets among perks for sports authority board members

"It really wasn't a delegation from China in there. It was board members and their wives."

Tickets for Lady Gaga's Sept. 5, 2010, performance at Consol Energy Center sold out in five minutes. But it wasn't hard for Sean Logan or Anthony J. Ross to get tickets -- they're board members at the authority that manages the taxpayer-owned building.

The Sports and Exhibition Authority also owns Heinz Field and PNC Park, and those on its seven-member board aren't the only recipients of free tickets. Officials with the City of Pittsburgh also saw Lady Gaga perform, as did members of the 316th Army Reserve, a frequent beneficiary of SEA largesse.  

When the city's sports facilities were built, their leases included provisions that gave the SEA its own luxury-box suite, as well as tickets in the general seating areas. Another beneficiary is the Stadium Authority, whose five board members managed Three Rivers Stadium and still control land near the new North Side facilities. 

The SEA's ticket policy asserts that freebies should be used to advance "economic development opportunities, promotion and marketing of the region." It also envisions "use by public officials responsible for the SEA's facilities or the region's development, consistent with their oversight functions."

Between January 2010 and Sept. 24, 2011, the SEA issued complimentary tickets to nearly 320 pro-sports games, concerts and other events, according to agency records. 

Recipients weren't limited to board members like Logan -- a former state senator who is now an executive at UPMC -- or Ross, a developer. (Neither man returned calls for comment.) They included nonprofit groups -- including at least one with ties to an agency staffer -- and government officials. 

The city of Pittsburgh, for example, received tickets to every regular-season Steelers game since 2010, as well as Pirates and Penguins games. City officials, along with county representatives, state lawmakers and various nonprofit agencies, also attended events like concerts by Justin Bieber and Paul McCartney, and Sesame Street Live.


The SEA says there's a good reason for offering free tickets to officials.

"Our sports facilities and Convention Center were built to be economic generators for the region," SEA officials Mary Conturo and Jason Kobeda wrote in an email to City Paper.  

As part of the effort to market the facilities, and the region, each year the SEA notifies government officials and economic-development agencies about ticket availability. Recipients of the letters include city and county government, tourism-promotion group VisitPittsburgh, and the Allegheny Conference, a leading business group. 

SEA board members are permitted to use the luxury-box suite for Pirates, Steelers and Penguins games. They are also entitled to tickets in regular seating sections. Similarly, Stadium Authority members are permitted use of the suite at one Pirates and Steelers game and can receive up to a certain amount of tickets at those venues.

When the agency gives tickets to its own board members, it does so to advance the interests of the authority itself. "It is important for legislators … to have an appreciation of these major facilities and the impacts they have," Conturo and Kobeda wrote.

"I never use them," says state Sen. Wayne Fontana, SEA board chairman. Records show that Fontana received tickets to nearly three dozen events -- more than any other board member. But he says for the most part, "I give them away to folks who don't have the opportunity to go to games or for people who live out of town and pass through." Recently, for example, he hosted the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce at a suite at Heinz Field.

"I could care less about getting the tickets," Fontana adds. "If they took them away tomorrow, it's OK." 

State legislators, including local state Rep. Jake Wheatley (D-Hill District), and others listed simply as "PA State Legislators" and "Commonwealth of PA" are also on the SEA's list of recipients -- which Fontana says is as it should be. "When I'm in Harrisburg asking for programs and funding for Allegheny County, I want those folks to see what we have to offer."

Similarly, Pittsburgh City Councilor Darlene Harris, another SEA board member, says free tickets should benefit the larger community. SEA records show that Harris has received tickets for 10 events since 2010, but she says "I don't have time to go. I've given tickets away. I've given them to raffles."

But since the facilities are recreational, says City Councilor Bill Peduto, it's inevitable that free tickets will sometimes be used accordingly. "I've been [in the suite] for the Stadium Authority at a Steelers game with other members of the Stadium Authority," says Peduto, a former Stadium Authority member. "It really wasn't a delegation from China in there. It was board members and their wives."


Offering free tickets is a common practice, notes Michael Frenz, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority. In Maryland, board members, business partners and legislators are allowed to use tickets to "promote the interest of the authority," he says. 

Frenz notes that Maryland's authority keeps the process as transparent as possible: "We record everyone who uses it. We don't want people to think they have a cushy, hidden job perk. It's a serious thing principally used for promotion."

In Pittsburgh, by contrast, it's not always clear who actually uses the tickets. SEA records often only indicate that tickets were given to "City of Pittsburgh" or "Allegheny County"; the records do not identify who specifically attended -- and government officials declined to specify. 

County spokesperson Judi McNeil declined to provide details "[b]ecause these instances involve sensitive negotiations and discussions with companies we are either trying to retain in or attract to Allegheny County." County Executive Dan Onorato "may or may not attend [a given] event," she added. 

Joanna Doven, spokeswoman for Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, also declined to name events the mayor has attended. She did say the mayor often accompanied "business and corporate leaders, some of whom may be looking to expand into the Pittsburgh region," she said. "The mayor and his staff members use these tickets primarily for economic-development opportunities."

What's more, the SEA says that when a legislator accepts free tickets, they don't even have to be reported as contributions, the way other gifts typically are. Because the authority owns the tickets by virtue of the lease agreements, SEA officials say they have no value. 

Some reformers scoff at that claim. 

"Just try telling that to a fan that wants to get into a Steelers game," says Tim Potts, of government-watchdog group Democracy Rising. 


The SEA also issues tickets to nonprofits. Among its top recipients are the 316th Army Reserve unit in Coraopolis and Tickets for Kids Charities, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit that distributes tickets to nearly 2,400 social-service agencies and community groups. 

"All the agencies are vetted before allowed to become partners with us and we confirm they use our tickets properly with kids," says Meryl Hellring, communications director of Tickets for Kids Charities. "We distribute the tickets to low-income, underprivileged families. … For a lot of [children] it'd be impossible for them to go these events."

The SEA also donates to other nonprofits directly; tickets went to some 50 groups in 2010 and 2011, ranging from the Greater Regional Council of Carpenters to the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund. 

Some nonprofits received more than others; Rhema Christian School, whose board treasurer is an SEA employee, for example, received tickets to a half-dozen events, including Pirates games and a professional wrestling event. That outpaced the number of free tickets given to such organizations as the Urban League and the Mel Blount Youth Home. 

Rhema's treasurer is identified as Doug Straley, who also works as a project executive for the SEA. When asked if the SEA had a conflict-of-interest policy for the donations, the SEA declined comment, saying only that Rhema "was treated as any other nonprofit." 

In any case, nonprofit groups are among those who should benefit from the SEA's access to the venues. City Councilor Peduto, a one-time member of the Stadium Authority, says the facilities were advertised as community assets.

"The idea … was that the facilities get to be used by the public," Peduto says. "It doesn't mean that elected officials get to run around the bases whenever they want."

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