Friday, January 25, 2013

Mahern Seeks Full Disclosure Of Gifts For Council Members

As City-County Council members prepare to enact a 67% tax increase on ticketed admissions to sporting and other public events in Marion County, Councilor Brian Mahern is seeking a change in the ethics code governing council members that will require them to report gifts received from anyone, including governmental entities, and to itemize the value of the gifts they receive. The current ethics code, drafted by Barnes & Thornburg and sponsored by then-Council President Ryan Vaughn, has a big loophole in the requirement that council members report single gifts with a value of more than $100 and combined gifts totalling at least $250 if the donor is doing business with the city or is engaged in lobbying the council and city-county agencies. That omits gifts of value the councilors receive from other governmental entities, such as the Capital Improvement Board.

Under the one-sided lease agreements the CIB entered into with the Indianapolis Colts and Indiana Pacers for Lucas Oil Stadium and Banker's Life Fieldhouse, the CIB and the Mayor's office are provided suites for entertainment purposes at no additional cost and free tickets to sporting and other events held at the facilities. Mayor Ballard's office and the CIB, in turn, hand out the tickets to whomever they choose. Council members are often the recipients of these tickets. In addition, every member of the Capital Improvement Board is provided two tickets per game. CCC President Maggie Lewis sits on the CIB as the council's representative and receives those free tickets. Some council members voluntarily disclose free tickets they receive from the Mayor's office or the CIB on their annual financial disclosure statement, but most do not, and the code specifically exempts them from disclosure since they are given to them by a municipal governmental entity. The team owners also have a cache of free tickets to give out to every game, but council members must disclose any gift they receive from the teams that exceed the gift threshold, which I believe should be lowered to $50, rather than the $100 level at which it is currently set. The $100 level is set because the ticket values are often in the $75 to $95 range below the reporting threshold.

I have long argued that council members are, in effect, bribed with all the freebies they receive when it comes to voting on matters pertaining to the CIB and the professional sports team. I also believe these council members should be required to place a value on the free food and drinks they receive when they visit the suites while using these free tickets. At the prices charged by caterers at the events, the combined drink and food tab per person could approach the cost of a ticket in some instances. A lot of these catering expenses at the suites are laundered through VisitIndy and DevelopIndy, the two city-funded nonprofits that promote tourism and economic development, respectfully, to avoid transparency. I've previously discussed how pay-to-play contractors launder money through DevelopIndy to help finance all of Mayor Ballard's out-of-town junkets, including numerous, very costly extended trips he's taken overseas. Pay-to-play contractors are chosen to accompany Ballard on these junkets where they can entertain him and his wife all they want outside the prying eyes of the media or a discerning public.

Councilor Brian Mahern tells the IBJ he is sponsoring the proposal because he believes "there should be greater transparency in the reporting of gifts, period." Mahern visibly irked members of the Administration & Finance Committee who recently voted to send proposals increasing the admissions tax and car rental tax to the full council for a vote when he called them out for supporting a tax many of them don't pay because they receive free tickets. Mahern had requested the CIB make public information about how many and to whom the tickets are being given, but the CIB said it was unable to compile the information prior to the council committee vote on the tax increase. Hopefully, they will have made that information available prior to Monday night's vote on the tax increase.

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