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Business Ethics and Baseball Tickets

Baseball season is here. That means businesses will be opening their boxes and seats for entertaining clients and potential clients. Of course those tickets are gifts. How do you treat them under your company's gifts policy or a government's ethics policy? One typical requirement is that you pay for the tickets. Face value is the general rule.

How about if those tickets were 2004 Red Sox World Series tickets? After all, Red Sox World Series tickets used to be very rare. (Since the new ownership, they are just uncommon.) Should you pay face value or the secondary market price?

The mayor of Pittsfield Massachusetts is countering an ethics complaint for those rare tickets. He bought the tickets for $380 from someone who had business before the city. That was $190 per ticket, the face value, for Game 2 of the World Series was played on October 24, 2004, at Fenway Park between the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals. It so happened that the person with the tickets and the business before the city was former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette.

The Enforcement Division of the State Ethics Commission alleges that there was enormous demand for 2004 World Series tickets. They were not available to the general public at face value, and were selling on secondary market at between $600 to $2,000 per ticket.

Section 3(a) of the Massachusetts Conflict of Interest Law makes it illegal for a government official who

"directly or indirectly, asks, demands, exacts, solicits, seeks, accepts, receives or agrees to receive anything of substantial value: (i) for himself for or because of any official act or act within his official responsibility performed or to be performed by him; or (ii) to influence, or attempt to influence, him in an official act taken."  Generally, anything worth more than $50 has "substantial value."

One problem is that it is illegal in Massachusetts to sell tickets for more than $2 about the face value plus the costs of obtaining the ticket.  So if Duquette sold the ticket to the mayor for the secondary market price, he would have broken the law. Granted the ticket scalping laws in Massachusetts are mess.

Nonetheless, the State Ethics Commission had already issued an ethics advisory that special access to purchase tickets is a special benefit and could be an "unwarranted privilege or exemption of substantial value."The opinion cites Ryder Cup, Super Bowl and World Series tickets as examples. (Coincidentally, that advisory opinion was issued in the spring of 2004. Clearly hope springs eternal each spring in Boston.)

The big problem is that according to the press release, Duquette admitted that he sold the tickets to the mayor because he wanted influence the mayor's official government act. Intent usually wins, so if his admission is true then he broke the law. The mayor is in a tougher position because the value of the tickets may be tough to ascertain. The price for the tickets will vary leading up to the game and different sellers may have different prices.

For additional commentary on developments in compliance and ethics, visit Compliance Building, a blog hosted by Doug Cornelius.