Atlanta ethics board: No free Falcons tickets, suites for city workers

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No city workers can get free tickets or suites to Falcons games, even if they conduct "business meetings,"  the Atlanta Board of Ethics decided publicly Thursday night.

The decision ended a controversy over ethics at City Hall, where business development arm Invest Atlanta argued in July, some city leaders should be granted access to premium seating at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium to lure business investors to Atlanta.

Mayor Kasim Reed serves as the chair of the board of Invest Atlanta. His office did not respond to comment over the Board's decision.

Invest Atlanta officials declined to comment Thursday on the Atlanta Board of Ethics' decision.

In July, Invest Atlanta provided a formal request to the Board of Ethics to reverse a 2013 decision that ruled that Invest Atlanta employees are prohibited from using Falcons stadium seats for business purposes, in accordance with Atlanta City Code.

"We chose not to do that because the 2013 advisory opinion was correct... The city code says clearly, no tickets," said board chair Kate Wasch.

The only exception allowed to city code, board member state, includes performing an official duty or appearance at a game, the board said; business deals would not be deemed an exception.

The 2013 Opinion outlining reasons why Invest Atlanta employees would be barred from attending sporting events, despite the Tri-Party Memorandum granting Invest Atlanta employees "premium seating and rights to certain events.... for use by Invest Atlanta consistent with its statutory economic development mission."

The 2013 Opinion by the Board of Ethics states, city code "prohibits the city or an entity acting as its agent from requiring that passes, tickets or gratuities be paid to officials or employees in connection with the execution of or performance under a contract or lease. Section 2-816 (a). Therefore, the subject contract language violates the Atlanta Code of Ethics."

The link to the full 2013 Opinion can be viewed here:

In that July board meeting, the attorney for Invest Atlanta, Rosalind Rubens Newell, argued the organization had new evidence that would encourage the Board of Ethics to reverse its decision; Newell said the designated seats and suites had been arranged through an agreement with the Falcons, and "paid" for through the work of employees to gain millions of dollars in business and investments for the city.

"We compete, not just on the national level, but internationally for business," Newell said and told the board the seats would only be used by designated employees for the sole purpose of attracting business leaders and investors to the city.

Any employees using the tickets and seats inappropriately would be forced to pay the value of the seats, or would be reprimanded or fired, Newell said to the board.

A letter presented by Invest Atlanta to the Board of Ethics outlined their request for a reversal of the 2013 decision, arguing the decision was "wrong as a matter of fact and law... the contract provision governing the use of premium seating at the new Mercedes-Benz stadium is permitted by the City of Atlanta Ethics Code."

"Invest Atlanta has a valid purpose and interest in showcasing one of the city's finest amenities-- the new Mercedes Benz Stadium," the letter said, written by Dr. Eloisa Klementich, the CEO, and president of the organization.

William Perry of Georgia Ethics Watchdog called the move a "Hail Mary" by city officials and the Mayor, to attempt a last-minute request of the Board before the start of football season.

I know that happens all the time in business. This is not business. This is government. In government, what they are talking about is a bribe-- plain and simple," Perry said.

The City's Ethics Code must be changed by City Council to ever allow city workers to use free tickets for business. No word from city officials if Invest Atlanta plans to request an amendment of code from City Hall.