DENVER (CBS4) – Free tickets to concerts and shows provided to Mayor Michael Hancock’s office intended to be used for business development and marketing have been going to his inner circle, other staff members, cabinet members and friends since Hancock took office in July 2011, according to a CBS4 investigation.
The mayor’s office receives free tickets to shows at Red Rocks, the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, the Buell Theater, The Coliseum and other city-owned facilities.
“The intent was the mayor as CEO of the city would be able to use the tickets strategically to entertain visitors to the city,” said Susan Barnes-Gelt, a former Denver city councilwoman who was instrumental in authoring Denver’s ethics code a dozen years ago. “The intent was those seats would be used to advance the agenda of the city, not the agenda of the mayor’s office.”
But CBS4 found roughly 41 percent of the mayor’s tickets have been given to politically-connected insiders like his chief of staff, deputy chiefs of staff, city attorney, a deputy manager of safety and other department heads.
“I can’t understate the importance of them being seen in those theaters and showing our support for the arts in Denver,” said Hancock, explaining why he has given so many tickets to the people who work for him. “It’s important to be seen at them and show support for the arts.”
Records for 2012 show 48 tickets for 16 events went to Hancock’s Chief of Staff Janice Sinden. She received tickets for four performances of the sold out “Book of Mormon” shows at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House along with tickets for numerous Red Rocks shows. The Mayor gets a box at Red Rocks that seats 12 people.
The mayor’s office also provided six tickets to a sold out “Book of Mormon” performance to Denver businessman Barry Hirschfeld, who donated several thousand dollars to the mayor’s election campaign in 2011. Hirschfeld did not return a call from CBS4 inquiring about the free tickets.
City Attorney Doug Friednash received a pair of “Book of Mormon’ tickets to the Aug. 25 performance. He was also provided Red Rocks tickets for The Shins, Mumford and Sons and Wiz Khalifa. In all, the city attorney received 18 tickets for five Red Rocks shows this past summer.
Hancock’s Deputy Chief of Staff Evan Dreyer is listed as getting 14 tickets to Red Rocks shows this summer like the Doobie Brothers and Chicago, String Cheese Incident and Blues Traveler.
Also on the receiving end of the Mayor’s tickets, Ashley Kilroy, a Deputy Manager of Safety, public information officers in the mayor’s office and the Office of Public Works, the manager of Denver’s General Services Administration Adrienne Benavidez, and city council members Albus Brooks and Chris Nevitt, along with Denver Police Cpt. Tracie Keesee and dozens of other politically-connected city employees.
According to city records, Gov. John Hickenlooper received four seats in the mayor’s box at Red Rocks for eight shows in 2012 — a total of 32 tickets — for acts ranging from The Fray to Bon Iver.
“The governor used the tickets or gave them to staff in the governor’s office,” said Hickenlooper spokesman Eric Brown.
Asked why the governor requested the mayor’s freebies and didn’t just buy his own tickets, Brown replied, “The tickets have no value and can’t be sold. We have tried to create value by bringing different people together to help support the venue, the city and state, and the creative community.”
“I think the mayor did not exercise good judgment in his use of the tickets for his staff, city employees, some donors and friends for his first 16 months,” said Barnes-Gelt.
She said she was equally troubled that numerous staff members and insiders had received more than four tickets in a calendar year, something Barnes-Gelt says may be a violation of the city ethics code.
Michael Henry, staff director for the Denver Board of Ethics, said he wasn’t sure if the large number of tickets given to certain staff members violated the ethics code.
“That’s a good question,” said Henry. “It’s something we’ve never looked at before.”
Henry did not indicate if the Board of Ethics would look into the matter.
“It wasn’t intended to take care of employees; that was not the intention,” said Barnes-Gelt. “They’re being used for political purposes and that’s not appropriate.”
The former council member said most of the political insiders and staff members receiving the tickets are well compensated and could afford to buy their own tickets.
Hancock acknowledged the freebies are “strategically important” and are supposed to be used to “leverage relationships.” But he defended the large number that has ended up in the hands of his political allies.
“A lot of my staff members, it’s a good opportunity to expose them to the arts as well. They are public servants working 12 hours a day and I don’t have a problem when we have open seats for the mayor, if they say ‘I want to go,’ so they can enjoy the arts as well.”
Hancock was then asked, “What about using the tickets for heroes in the community or returning veterans?”
“We’re not closed to that. We just got an ethics opinion. We’re open to it,” said the mayor.
His city attorney asked the ethics board in May for an opinion on whether it would be acceptable for the mayor to begin donating his tickets to nonprofits and charities so they could auction off the tickets and raise money for their causes. The ethics board responded that would be acceptable as long as the tickets are used only for “charitable purposes.”
Barnes-Gelt applauds that use of the tickets but wondered why it took the mayor’s office so long to decide that was a better use of the tickets.
Rowena Alegria, a spokesperson for Mayor Hancock, defended the way the tickets have been distributed, saying it’s been done this way for years.
“The above described use of the seats is a long-standing practice that predates this mayor by at least three prior administrations. These are city-owned facilities, and this practice is a completely appropriate way for the mayor to thank and provide employees, community members and others with access to some of the city’s entertainment venues,” said Alegria.
CBS4 requested an accounting of how the mayor’s tickets were distributed in 2011, but a spokesperson said the city only maintains such records for the current calendar year.
- Written by Brian Maass for CBSDenver.com