Elected officials spend money on OSU tickets

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

COLUMBUS — State elected officials have spent more than $400,000 on Ohio State football tickets since 1996, purchasing hundreds of seats each year through their campaign funds, state records show.

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For the upcoming 2008 season, 773 season tickets have been purchased by public officials at the state, county and local levels, according to university data. Most of those were bought by state lawmakers, all 132 of whom are offered four apiece.

“We look at ourselves as a statewide institution,” Ohio State spokeswoman Shelly Hoffman said. “Football is a great way to connect with people, so we can then tell them about other things we have going on.”

The tickets can be purchased for $62 a game — or $434 for season tickets for all seven home games.

The sudden resignation in May of state Rep. John Widowfield, a Cuyahoga Falls Republican, drew attention to the popular practice of lawmakers purchasing face-value Buckeyes tickets offered by the university. Widowfield is alleged to have sold tickets he bought with campaign funds on eBay for a profit, which is illegal. Findings of a state investigation into his actions are expected later this summer.

Legislative Inspector General Tony Bledsoe said it is common for football tickets to be offered to legislators as a perk in states with a large state university.

Tickets became in issue earlier this year in Louisiana, Ohio State’s rival in the most recent BCS Championship bowl game.

In February, Louisiana lawmakers agreed to a bill that barred lawmakers and other elected officials from receiving free tickets from lobbyists to professional sports games, college sports games, big-money cultural events and free fishing trips, hunting trips and golf games.

But the bill didn’t strike at lawmakers’ ability to buy face-value tickets to Louisiana State football games, the Sugar Bowl and other hard-to-get football events like the BCS Championship that was held at the Superdome. Louisiana State beat Ohio State in that game, 38-24.

In Ohio, state campaign finance filings reviewed by The Associated Press show dozens of lawmakers purchasing season tickets, many year after year. The purchases are logged in different ways, sometimes as “OSU Football Tickets” but also more vaguely as listings like “Tickets for Donations.”

While face value for Ohio State tickets is $62, coveted tickets to certain games, such as the one against rival Michigan, have been resold for more than $6,000 in the team’s best years.

Hoffman said Ohio State’s ticket offer is extended to legislators and some of their staff, the governor and his cabinet, statewide officeholders, and a handful of elected officials in Columbus and Franklin County. Elected officials may purchase four season tickets and the others two.

J. Curtis Mayhew, Ohio’s campaign finance administrator, said lawmakers are free to use campaign funds to make such purchases and to use the tickets for themselves or as giveaways to constituents and others.

“There’s no doubt that the statute is pretty lenient with regard to how they can spend their money,” he said. “Really, the big prohibition is on converting it to personal use.”

Catherine Turcer, who monitors campaign spending for the government watchdog group Ohio Citizen Action, said such purchases may be legal — but they aren’t always ethical, especially when given as gifts to lobbyists.

“They have access to something that other people do not have access to,” she said. “Very few alumni have access to this number of tickets. And then that they could buy these with their campaign funds? It may be legal, but that doesn’t mean it actually passes the smell test.”

Bledsoe has issued a series of warnings to Ohio lawmakers in recent years, as ticket values have climbed amid the Buckeyes’ rise to contention for two national titles.

“It was simply recognizing the temptation of what these tickets were starting to go for,” he said.

Lawmakers may not use their taxpayer-funded salaries to purchase the tickets, though the ticket offer is extended to them by virtue of their position, Bledsoe said.

“In the legislative branch, we don’t permit anyone to purchase them with state money, period,” he said. “I certainly wouldn’t want to be the public official answering to taxpayers on that.”