RICHMOND — Turns out Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s commerce secretary wasn’t the only administration official who got to take in a playoff game this month in the Washington Redskins’ luxury box.
The team provided the entire 31-seat suite to the governor’s office for that Jan. 10 playoff — information the administration did not disclose a little over a week ago, when Commerce Secretary Maurice Jones’s attendance became a subject of public controversy.
Who else got to go?
State Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Rockingham) thinks that should be a matter of public record. He wrote to the governor asking about it, but most of his questions went unanswered.
“It’s sketchy,” Obenshain said. “If he was committed to principles of transparency, he wouldn’t be playing games about who was going.”
McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy acknowledged in an interview with The Washington Post that other state officials went to the game, along with their relatives and personal guests. But he said there is no need to reveal their names because unlike Jones, who got approval to attend free of charge because a state ethics official saw his trip to FedEx Field as a trade mission, most of the other administration officials paid for their tickets.
Coy said the officials paid $300 per person, which he said was the stadium’s top ticket price.
“If you spend your own money on something, you don’t have to disclose,” Coy said.
But Obenshain wonders whether that price really covers the value of a day in the suite, which, as the Associated Press first reported, lists online for $18,000 to $24,000 for regular-season games. Perhaps other die-hard Redskins fans would have gladly accepted the opportunity to fork over $300 to see the home team’s postseason dreams crushed by the Green Bay Packers.
Obenshain also wonders about the timing of the payments. Coy said on Friday that the attendees who paid did so about a week earlier — nearly three weeks after the game and around the time of a Jan. 21 Associated Press report that Jones had attended the game as a guest of the Redskins.
“This is the kind of accountability that people practice when they’re caught,” Obenshain said. “The question is whether they would have ever been paid if this story hadn’t broken.”
Coy said it was difficult to put a precise date on “a bunch of individual transactions.” But he indicated that the payments had been made as soon as possible.
“We got final determination from the team on the cost last week,” he said Friday.
Mixing gifts with government officials remains tricky in Richmond, which is still reeling from a $177,000 gifts scandal involving McAuliffe’s predecessor, Robert F. McDonnell (R). McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted of corruption in September 2014 but are appealing.
Legislators, who until recently were free to accept unlimited gifts from people with business before state government, have made two stabs at ethics reform over the past two years.
No one has been more outspoken on the subject than McAuliffe (D). Shortly after his swearing-in, he signed an executive order imposing a $100 cap on gifts to himself, his family and his administration. He has reimbursed gift-givers who cannot break themselves of the habit of showering their governor with not-so-token gifts.
Just last year, McAuliffe chastised the legislature for leaving a loophole allowing public officials to go to “widely attended” events for free. The exception was meant to allow officials to attend events such as Chamber of Commerce dinners without having to shell out for the cost of the meal. But McAuliffe warned it might open the door to inappropriate freebies, such as Redskins tickets.
Even though Jones sought and received ethics council clearance, Republicans saw some irony in the justification — it was okay for Jones to take free tickets from the Redskins because he is trying to do business with the team. McAuliffe is trying to lure the team from Maryland to Virginia.
In a floor speech in the Senate and in a letter to the governor, Obenshain questioned whether McAuliffe had abandoned his $100 gift limit. The letter also pressed the governor’s office for more details, including how many tickets were accepted by Jones, his aide or any other members of the administration.
Carlos L. Hopkins, counsel to the governor, wrote back that it made “sold business sense” for Jones to attend the game given that leaders from other jurisdictions aggressively courting the team — including D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) — were also there in separate boxes. Bowser and other D.C. officials said they were free to accept the tickets, which they considered a gift to the city.
Obenshain’s letter asked the governor how many tickets were accepted by Jones, his aide or any other members of the administration. Hopkins limited his response on that front to this: “Other persons in attendance either paid their own way or are not subject to the provisions” of the governor’s executive order or the state’s conflict-of-interest law.
As for those “other persons,” the administration is saying very little.
Coy said Jones had an aide there to help him with his stated economic-development mission, which involved entertaining representatives from business prospects as well as wooing Redskins officials. The aide also had the ethics council’s blessing, Coy said. He declined to identify the aide by name but said the gift will be disclosed on their ethics disclosure form, which will be filed in June.
The aide’s spouse attended, also for free.
As for the business representatives who obtained some of the tickets through the governor’s office, Coy declined to identify the companies or to say how many people were there to represent them. He initially said there were representatives from two companies but later said he had been given more information, and the number rose to three.
The business reps did not pay for their tickets, which amounted to a gift from the team that passed through the governor’s office.
The rest of the tickets went to an undisclosed number of state government officials, some of whom brought relatives or other guests, Coy said. They alone paid for their tickets.
“Food and drink were provided by the Virginia Economic Development Partnership,” Coy said, stressing that it was not a gift from the Redskins. “My understanding is it was provided for the people who were there for economic-development purposes, and everyone else paid their own way.”