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Time for Ted Leonsis to end a suite deal for D.C. politicians

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Friday, March 4, 2011

Ted Leonsis, the owner of Verizon Center, the Washington Capitals and the Washington Wizards, could do D.C. taxpayers a huge favor by taking back the two luxury suites that the late Abe Pollin gave the mayor and the D.C. Council.

Pollin, you may recall, gave the city's elected leaders two suites, which are priced between $100,000 and $175,000 apiece annually, because they provided him with $50 million to upgrade Verizon Center in 2007. Actually, Pollin gave the city only one suite, but Mayor Adrian Fenty hogged all the tickets. That led to the council's begging Pollin to cough up another suite just for them. A more undeserving lot would be hard to find.

The $50 million upgrade served the interests of both Pollin and the District. Vincent Gray, who championed the upgrade when he chaired the council, said it would "help attract top-drawer, first class, top-level events to the arena that could generate millions in tourist dollars." Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said the city would reap the benefit by increasing taxes on tickets and merchandise bought at the arena. Evans boasted that the levies would be a "user tax" that would mostly burden nonresidents.

In other words, city leaders weren't doing Pollin any favors. The District's interests also were served.

But that's not the way the freeloaders saw things. Like sponges that live on others, the mayor and council wanted in on the lavish life they saw going on above the floor of Verizon Center, but at no expense to themselves. Using their standing as the city's elected leaders, they extorted (oops, can't get that past the lawyers) make that "extracted," glitzy suites from Pollin. All for doing what was expected of them.

Pollin had a well-deserved reputation for his generosity toward the community. But giving in to the politicians' demands cost the city some money. Two luxury suites that would have been purchased by taxpaying corporations and individuals are in the clutches of city officials who don't pay a cent. That arrangement also cuts Verizon Center out of money it would have earned from the sale of those two suites, leaving Caps and Wizards fans and anyone attending other events to swallow higher ticket prices while politicians get a free ride.

And toward what end?

Jack Evans said at the time that the suites should be used only for "economic development purposes." But has that been the case? Traci Hughes, spokeswoman for D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown (D), told me this week that no public records have been kept of who uses the luxury suite, and that a written policy on obtaining tickets to the suite was only recently introduced by Brown.

So taxpayers don't know whether the luxury suites have been used only to promote the city or whether they have been used to reward campaign contributors and volunteers, to curry favor with special-interest groups, to entertain family members and friends, or for the officials' personal enjoyment.

Would that the hustle for perks stopped with Verizon Center. The owners of Nationals Park and the Washington Nationals had to give the city two suites, 25 field-level tickets and free parking.

Now in fairness to our current crop of freeloaders, the desire to live large at taxpayers' expense is long-standing. None other than Marion Barry made a good run at it 13 years ago when he was mayor and chairman of the D.C. Sports Commission. He tried to lease a pair of luxury suites in MCI Center (now Verizon Center) in 1997. But the congressionally created D.C. Financial Control Board was in place at the time, and Barry's proposal never got past the control board's staff.

Undeterred, Barry went to work on control board chairman Andrew F. Brimmer, who became convinced that Barry had a good idea. A short time later, a revised Barry proposal surfaced in the form of a single luxury suite with 12 seats covered by a $625,000, five-year lease.

That led to a challenge by control board member Constance Berry Newman at a public meeting. Newman told Brimmer, "I'm sorry I have to do this, Mr. Chairman. As far as I'm concerned the matter is not open. There are five of us. We each have a vote. The issue of the skybox is closed." Bless her heart.

Now, it's up to Ted Leonsis.

kingc@washpost.com


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