Politicians’ Rush for Bills Box Meets Little Ethics Defense

Guidelines limiting gifts of taxpayer resources have “no teeth whatsoever,” according to good government watchdog.

Chris Bragg   ·   April 4, 2024
Governor Kathy Hochul of New York stands behind a podium with a Buffalo Bills logo and her arms spread wide.
Governor Kathy Hochul announces construction milestone on the new Buffalo Bills stadium on January 26, 2024. | Darren McGee / Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

As Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie cheered for the Dallas Cowboys from a luxury Buffalo Bills suite, he was surrounded by friends: his college roommate and now lobbyist Patrick Jenkins; Jenkins’s wife; and a state lobbyist Heastie has been quietly dating, Rebecca Lamorte.

The taxpayer-subsidized suite is meant to be used to boost western New York’s economy or for other public or charitable purposes. According to guidelines issued by New York’s economic development agency, obtained through a public records request, recipients are required to verify that the tickets are being used appropriately.

But Heastie’s office didn’t provide verification for the December game — and the agency that created the rules, Empire State Development, never asked for it, according to interviews and records reviewed by New York Focus.

Though ESD’s guidelines contain some guardrails against misuse of a public resource, they have “no teeth whatsoever” if they are not followed, said John Kaehny, executive director of the government reform group Reinvent Albany.

Over the past decade, the suite has been requested primarily by business groups, which are not constrained by the same ethics rules as government employees.

According to state law, a public official cannot use their position “to secure unwarranted privileges or exemptions for himself or others.” The rules exist so that politicians and their associates cannot wield their power to gain advantages that are not available to the general public. In this instance, several people appear to have gotten the premium football tickets at a bargain price because of their close relationship to a politician — not because their attendance advanced the interests of taxpayers.

Empire State Development, which operates the state-owned “I Love NY Hospitality Center” suite, allowed the Assembly to take a significant portion of the seats, at request of Heastie’s office, “as a courtesy,” according to an ESD spokesperson.

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, of Buffalo, attended with a guest, as did her chief of staff, Mark Boyd — and Boyd’s wife, another lobbyist. Governor Kathy Hochul and her husband, both regular recipients of suite tickets, also attended.

Attorney David Grandeau, who was formerly the state’s top lobbying regulator, filed a complaint last Thursday with the state’s ethics commission, arguing that the politicians who attended the game violated the law prohibiting “unwarranted privileges.”

“None of the attendees had a valid governmental reason for attending the game,” Grandeau wrote. “Instead, they clearly abused their power to generate a valuable perk for themselves and the lobbyists that accompanied that was not available to everyday New York citizens and taxpayers.” (Grandeau, in a tangentially related matter, recently resigned as the attorney for a lobbying group that employs Lamorte.)

Kaehny said that the “whole mess is a perfect example of why government officials should not get free tickets to anything, especially things of value they can give to cronies and contributors.”

According to ESD’s written guidelines, a party requesting to use the suite should provide a “description of the purpose” of its use and a statement verifying its purpose as encouraging “economic development, tourism and public awareness for the State and Western New York” and “other charitable or public functions.” Each individual ticket recipient must also fill out a one-page form that describes the required purposes for their attendance.

According to ESD officials, “economic development groups” that use the suite will regularly provide such verification. Heastie’s office did not submit any documentation to that effect, they said, but ESD argued that attendees signing the one-page form counted as verification. The form does not ask a ticket recipient to verify that their attendance meets the required criteria. It only asks whether they’re a lobbyist, or are regulated by, do business with, or are suing New York state.

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Governor Kathy Hochul, wearing Buffalo Bills gear, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, wearing Dallas Cowboys gear, at the Buffalo Bills game on December 17, 2023.
Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, Governor Kathy Hochul, and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie at the Buffalo Bills game on December 17, 2023. | Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

An ESD spokesperson said that a photo the governor tweeted from the suite that day — showing herself, Heastie, and Peoples-Stokes — boosted public awareness of the state and western New York.

“As Buffalonians, @CPeoplesStokes and I both believe in tolerance for those with opposing opinions… and that’s why we decided to allow a certain @dallascowboys fan to join us at the@BuffaloBills game,” Hochul wrote, referring to Heastie.

ESD argues that elected officials networked with several local business officials who also sat in the suite, providing an economic development purpose to officials’ attendance. ESD did not explain how those elected officials’ plus-ones — or Heastie’s college roommate — could have served a similar purpose through their attendance.

Heastie, Hochul, and Peoples-Stokes’s offices did not respond to questions about whether their guests’ use of the tickets carried economic development, charitable, or public purposes.

Cuomo “never set foot” in the ESD suite.

—Rich Azzopardi

Not all public figures make use of the luxury suite. According to Rich Azzopardi, former Governor Andrew Cuomo’s longtime spokesperson, Hochul’s predecessor “never set foot” in it, choosing instead to use campaign funds to buy a ticket for himself and staff in the stands. (Cuomo did, on at least one occasion, join the Bills’ owners in their suite for a game.) He is not a noted Bills or football fan.

The relationship between the Bills and Hochul, a Buffalo native and avid fan of the team, has faced greater scrutiny. Since Hochul took office in 2021, the Bills have negotiated with New York state over generous subsidies to keep the team in Buffalo.

Two years ago, Hochul struck a deal to provide $600 million in state funds to build a new stadium for the team, plus $250 million from Erie County. That deal was then approved within the state budget, a process in which Heastie played a key role.

At the same time, the Bills are setting strikingly low ticket prices for the governor and other public officials to sit in the ESD suite.

Several people, including former governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, stare out a well-lit window while a football game plays in the background.
Former Governor Andrew Cuomo watches a Bills game from the team owners' suite on October 20, 2019. | Mike Groll / Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo

In 2013, the Buffalo Bills received $95 million in taxpayer funds for a stadium renovation — $54 million from the state and $41 million from Erie County. In exchange, the state extracted certain concessions from the team, including that the state government would be granted the suite in the publicly owned Highmark Stadium.

The 2013 lease agreement between the Bills and state stipulated that the suite was to be used for purposes benefitting western New York taxpayers — “fostering economic development, tourism and public awareness” for Buffalo, Erie County, and New York — or for “other charitable or public functions” determined by the state.

At the time, ESD leadership framed the initiative as a tool to bring out-of-state business to the Buffalo area, allowing “business leaders from around the country to know what a great place it is to invest and grow jobs.”

“The whole mess is a perfect example of why government officials should not get free tickets to anything.”

—John Kaehny, Reinvent Albany

ESD has taken a hands-off approach, despite a state history of controversies involving sports teams and politicians. The Yankees once provided World Series rings to former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani, and, later, free World Series tickets to former Governor David Paterson. Paterson was fined $62,000 for soliciting and accepting the Yankees tickets.

But the Bills tickets differ: The state owns the suite, so the Bills couldn’t give the tickets away for free. The publicly owned box is a taxpayer resource, so if it’s used for purposes that don’t benefit the public, that can raise its own legal issue.

In 2013, the Cuomo administration adopted a policy requiring state public officials to pay for seats in the “I Love New York” suite. The practice became that the Bills set the price of tickets, and rather than paying for admission, public officials must donate at least that amount to a charity of their choice.

According to a guideline outlined in the ESD document, state officials should be charged the same amount for tickets as the “general public” would be for attending the same event.

But the general public cannot buy tickets to the ESD suite, and as first reported by the Times Union, the Bills appear to set prices far lower than a member of the general public would pay for a similar suite. For the December 17 game, the Bills priced tickets at $177 per public official.

A Bills spokesperson did not answer a question about how much the team charged the general public for tickets to other, similar suites on December 17.

On the secondary ticket market, a whole suite for a regular season game costs between $9,000 and $30,000, according to one website. Divided between 16 people, that would cost anywhere from $562 to $1,875 per person. Another ticket website put the price for a full suite at $15,000 and $25,000 per game.

Considering the December 17 game was a key late-season match between the Bills and Cowboys — the most popular team in the National Football League — suite prices likely ran high that day. And the state’s suite is on the “100 level,” which is closer to the field and where seats tend to cost even more.

According to ESD, Heastie donated about $370 to the YMCA of Greater New York. He brought Lamorte, while Hochul donated $531 to FeedMore WNY and brought her husband. Peoples-Stokes and Boyd each donated $400 to separate charities, and Jenkins donated $1,000 to another. All three also brought guests.

The suite has, at times, been used for purposes more clearly related to economic development or charity. It was requested by the Buffalo Niagara Film Office, which hosted Hollywood movie producers. In 2021, the suite was used for charitable purposes for a pre-season game, when it was given to the nonprofit People Inc.

On December 17, no business executives from outside western New York attended. And records show that at other times, the suite has been used to host parties consisting solely of western New York elected officials and business executives — not “business leaders from around the country.”

“Should friends of Carl Heastie get a suite for big NFL games? No. But should these other people? No,” Kaehny said. “I don’t really see a glaring difference, because the entire purpose of the program is nonsense. They do it because they want to give away free tickets and make someone happy.”

Chris Bragg is the Albany bureau chief at New York Focus. He has done investigative reporting on New York government and politics since 2009, most recently at The Buffalo News and Albany Times Union.
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