Editor’s Note: This is part of a three-part series looking into how officials overseeing city negotiations and leases with pro franchises often times get free tickets to events. Part Two looks at how city council members used tickets while Part Three looks at city staff.
Officials in Anaheim – home to Angel Stadium and Honda Center – regularly dish out thousands of free tickets every year to events at city-owned venues, arguing they mainly go to community nonprofits.
Yet a Voice of OC review of the past six months of ticket passes given out by Anaheim’s new council majority and city staff shows loose tracking of who really gets access to what amounts to a six-figure sum of free sports and concert tickets.
While tracking is limited, it’s clear large amounts of tickets are going to elected officials, city staffers, political insiders, family members of politicians and city vendors.
Tickets To The Show
A Voice of OC investigation found Anaheim leaders are regularly handing out the city’s free tickets to city staff, campaign donors and political insiders.
The arrangement gives city leaders – who are responsible for overseeing and negotiating leases with local pro franchises like the Angels and the Ducks – front row seats to games or shows, a benefit they use regularly according to their ticket disclosures.
Under the city’s disclosure system, it’s impossible to see how many times anyone got tickets unless you check every disclosure.
The city has a website where residents can check who is using the tickets. But the website is not searchable and only allows residents to download a PDF document for each event that shows the state disclosure form 802, which covers such kinds of gifts.
On some days, that PDF includes as many as 60 tickets.
Voice of OC reporters took every individual 802 form for the last six months of disclosures and compiled them into a database to make it easier for residents to figure out who was using the city’s free tickets the most.
To review Voice of OC’s database of tickets from December through May 17, click here.
To see the way the city discloses those tickets, click here.
Altogether, Voice of OC reviewed over 1,500 tickets worth $223,000 given out by city leaders since a new city council came into office last December, most of which were for Ducks and Angels games.
The perks come alongside city leaders greenlighting a number of projects for their resident pro sports franchises, including a $4 billion development project dubbed OC V!be around the Honda Center.
The city’s ticket policy is juxtaposed against a crack in city hall credibility from an FBI corruption probe that surfaced last May, in which federal agents allege resort insiders run city hall through the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, noting the former mayor passed on information to the Angels in an effort to push a rushed stadium deal through for up to $1 million in campaign support.
Former Mayor Harry Sidhu resigned shortly after the probe surfaced last May and has maintained he’s done nothing wrong. He hasn’t been charged with a crime.
City officials expect the results of an independent investigation into the alleged pay to play schemes to land next month, although residents can expect a report with redactions.
While city hall elected and appointed officials await the outcome of that investigation, they are spending lots of time at Angel Stadium and the Honda Center.
All the free tickets generate questions about whether or not city leaders can be objective when negotiating with these pro sports franchises, according to Victor Matheson, a sports economics professor at the University of Minnesota who studies stadium sales and leases throughout the country.
“It’s 100% in the best interest of the team owners to do this. Because if they’ve got extra tickets available, it costs them nothing to give those out to council people,” Matheson said in a Friday interview.
“It’s exactly the sort of thing that council members are going to remember when it comes time to hand out lavish subsidies for sports facilities.”
Mayor Ashleigh Aitken and city spokesman Mike Lyster both emphasized that the tickets are intended to benefit nonprofits, schools and other community organizations with a connection to the city.
“Most of the time nonprofits reach out to us, but I prioritize schools or nonprofits in Anaheim,” Aitken said in an interview with Voice of OC. “The majority go to silent auctions for nonprofits.”
Aitken’s father Wylie chairs Voice of OC’s board of directors.
But the city’s own disclosures tell a different story.
Records show while around one in five tickets went to local nonprofits, churches or schools, most of the rest went to city staff or to individual councilmembers, who then doled them out to a mixture of campaign donors, friends and other political figures.
In a Wednesday interview, Neil deMause, a reporter who’s tracked stadium deals throughout the country for over 25 years, said while it is very common that cities with sports teams get free tickets, it is not without controversy – especially with the corruption allegations in Anaheim.
“I’m kind of amazed that this is going on in a city whose mayor literally resigned over a bribery scandal,” said deMause, author of the book Field of Schemes and who runs a website of the same name.
There’s also open questions over if Anaheim City Council members are looking to secretly negotiate another stadium deal after they rejected a transparency lawsuit that would’ve pushed for more transparent negotiations.
deMause said city officials should rethink their ticket policy since the corruption scandal still hangs over city hall.
“If any city should be trying to avoid the appearance of impropriety around benefits that are going on between elected officials and the local team owners it should be Anaheim,” he said.
How Did the City Get So Many Free Tickets?
Under their lease agreements with the city, both the Ducks and the Anaheim Angels are required to give the city complimentary tickets.
The Angels give two suites and 50 additional tickets to the city for every home game according to their lease agreement, while the Ducks give up one of their suites and 14 season tickets in the terrace each season according to their agreement.
Each city council member can request up to four suite tickets and two field seats per Angels game, along with up to two suite tickets and two terrace level tickets for each Ducks game, along with two suite tickets for other events at the Honda Center.
According to the city’s policy on tickets, City Manager Jim Vanderpool has the final say on who gets tickets and when.
To read a copy of that policy, click here.
While the tickets come at no cost to the city, Matheson points out that letting elected leaders and city staff choose who gets to go can create a major conflict of interest, calling it “legal bribery,” multiple times because it grants city leaders benefits to helping the team.
“It seems fairly obvious that gifting of tickets to people who have oversight capability should be prohibited by city policy,” he said in an interview on June 2. “It’s exactly the sort of thing that is actually prohibited in other industries.”
He points to a crackdown of those types of practices in the medical industry that were widespread.
“You can’t even bring doughnuts to doctors at this point, if you’re a drug rep, thanks to changes in those laws, because it was so obviously corrupting and influencing,” Matheson said.
City spokesman Mike Lyster disputed that, saying that the tickets aren’t from the teams, they’re from the lease agreements signed by the teams, and that their disclosures exceed what’s required under state law.
“They are city tickets at city buildings as part of a lease agreement,” Lyster wrote in a statement. “(Council) members are expected to independently weigh issues based on the merits and potential benefits to the city and its residents.”
deMause said “laundering tickets through a third party doesn’t make it less of a problem.”
“Clearly, elected officials know whose tickets they are,” he said. “I don’t think sort of making this an arm’s length thing of like,’ well, you know, they aren’t literally getting handed envelopes full of tickets by team lobbyists’ solves the problem.”
deMause said that how other cities with sports teams handle free tickets really runs the gamut.
“There are cities that say, ‘we don’t want any of this, we don’t want even the bad optics of this, keep them away from us’ and then there are plenty of cities that are just like ‘cool, how many tickets can you provide, we will happily take them all and use them,” he said.
Who Actually Got Tickets?
While city leaders are required to disclose when they use the tickets by law, their disclosure system also makes it almost impossible to track who receives tickets multiple times or why they got the tickets.
For each event, city council members and senior staff file a disclosure statement showing who got tickets, what the tickets were worth, and the reason they got tickets to the show.
But the disclosures often only show one person’s name for multiple tickets, making it unclear who receives the remaining tickets handed over in their name, and there’s no way to search the entire database for any person or department’s name.
For example, the City Manager’s office received tickets on 54 separate occasions over the past six months, and City Manager James Vanderpool or his assistant Greg Garcia were responsible for signing off on over 124 concerts, games or events according to the disclosures.
While the tickets are primarily meant for nonprofits and community groups, the leftovers end up going to city staff, according to Lyster.
“There are occasions when there are no community volunteer or nonprofit takers for tickets and they are offered to employees so tickets don’t go unused,” Lyster wrote.
Mayor Aitken says that most nonprofits can just get a ticket by calling up a city council member and asking for one, but that when she’s got spares she doesn’t often know what to do with them.
“Most of the time the nonprofits reach out to us,” Aitken said in an interview. “If we have unallocated tickets, we want people to use them.”
It’s unclear whether the city has a formal policy advising local nonprofits about the tickets, much less a transparent manner for the community groups to access the city resource.
The process for city staff is also not very transparent.
According to Lyster, city leaders try to spread the tickets throughout the staff, and that the city manager’s office is often just a passthrough before tickets find their home – something that’s not noted or shown in the disclosures.
“We monitor as tickets are requested and distributed to ensure they are equally available,” Lyster wrote.
He declined to state how many times the city manager has used the tickets, but said Vanderpool “does attend regularly.”
Lyster also confirmed he’s used the city’s free tickets himself “on several occasions,” but said he often posted on social media for the city when he was at games, so that made it work-related.
While the disclosures identified when city staff received tickets, it was less clear why specific people or certain nonprofits outside city hall received tickets.
Each disclosure included a general reason for the person receiving tickets, with answers such as rewards for community service popping up regularly.
But many of the people awarded for community service were also major campaign donors, friends and family of council members, and other political insiders with business before the city.
Mayor Ashleigh Aitken gave tickets to multiple major campaign donors, along with tickets to other political leaders like Santa Ana Councilman Phil Bacerra
Tom Morton, director of the city’s Convention, Sports and Entertainment Department, signed off on multiple instances where city staff took convention center vendors out for free tickets at the stadium or Honda Center.
Councilwoman Natalie Meeks gave over a dozen tickets to family members, and Councilwoman Natalie Rubalcava used over two dozen tickets for her own personal use since the November election.
When asked if city leaders had to provide a reasoning on why they gave tickets to certain people, Lyster stopped replying to questions from Voice of OC reporters.
A separate request to tour the city’s box also went unanswered.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
Since you’ve made it this far,
You obviously care about local news and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford, but it’s not free to produce. Help us become 100% reader funded with a tax deductible donation. For as little as $5 a month you can help us reach that goal.