Aldermen and city officials who take advantage of the Cubs’ lucrative offer to purchase playoff tickets at face value must accompany their guests to all games at Wrigley Field and be publicly announced to the crowd — and face the boos that may come with it — or risk violating the city’s ethics ordinance.
That’s the surprise ruling by the Chicago Board of Ethics. The board’s new chairman has questioned the conflict of interest posed by the team’s offering of tickets to a City Council that signed off on the team’s $750 million plan to renovate the landmark stadium and develop the land around it.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported Monday that all 50 aldermen and state lawmakers who represent Chicago districts have been offered the right to purchase two terrace reserved or upper deck tickets for each home playoff game at Wrigley Field at face value.
The lucrative perk comes three years after the City Council gave the Cubs the go-ahead to rebuild Wrigley and develop the land around it and less than four months after the Cubs won the limited right to sell beer and wine on an open-air plaza adjacent to the stadium.
Despite the apparent conflict of interest, “more than 70 percent” of City Council members and 85 percent of state lawmakers have taken the Cubs up on their generous offer. So have Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Bruce Rauner.
After reading the Sun-Times, incoming Ethics Board Chairman William Conlon fired off an email to longtime Executive Director Steve Berlin.
“Doesn’t this create the appearance of impropriety when, I assume, some of these officials have jurisdiction over/interact with the Cubs organization on everything from public health (hot dogs and vendors) to construction permits to alter the ballpark and build adjacent facilities? They are getting preferential treatment by the people they regulate,” Conlon wrote in an email obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.
Berlin replied that the ticket “offer itself is not prohibited,” but comes with a “critical caveat”: Elected officials and city employees accepting the offer must attend the game “in his or her official capacity — not as a private Cub fan.”
“It could be construed as a prohibited gift to the city official if they are not announced or if they give away or resell all tickets they purchased at this special price,” Berlin wrote.
“Every city official who purchases tickets [must] be advised at the time of purchase that the Cubs will announce their presence on the Jumbotron or via the PA system at some point during the game.”
Berlin further wrote that the Board of Ethics “will consider any actions inconsistent with this advice as potential violations of the ordinance, which could result in an investigation and public finding of a violation — most definitely a result to be avoided.”
Berlin noted that he had already engaged in “extensive conversations” with Mike Lufrano, vice-president of community relations with the Cubs. But, after reading the Sun-Times story, “It was “not clear that the Cubs had followed our advice given on Sept. 30.”
So, Berlin followed up with a phone call to Lufrano and an email marked “confidential” that spelled out the Ethics Board’s demands.
It noted that ethics ordinance prohibits city employees and elected officials from accepting gifts worth more than $50 and that the difference between the face value of Cubs playoff tickets and the “commonly understood fair market value” exceeds that $50 limit.
Nevertheless, the ordinance does not prohibit the mayor, aldermen and city officials from accepting the Cubs ticket offer “as long as they are acknowledged at the game in some public way,” the email states.
“When we advised you initially on Sept. 29, you balked at the possibility of publicly acknowledging or announcing everyone who accept the offer, because you said that you could not guarantee that they would not give the tickets to someone else. We advised you that the Cubs must use best efforts to help ensure that every official who purchases a ticket is announced,” Berlin wrote.
“You confirmed that every official who has accepted this offer will, in fact, be announced and that the Cubs will designate a VIP entrance and encourage each elected official to come through that entrance. You also confirmed that the Cubs will insert [an Ethics Board memo] into all envelopes containing tickets purchased by city officials [that] explains that … they cannot give tickets to anyone else unless they are also in attendance with that person and that, if they find they cannot attend, to turn all tickets for that game back to the Cubs organization.”
The email ends with an apology for playing the heavy.
“We wish to avoid even the possibility that there could be violations, which could subject the team and the elected officials to a public finding that the ordinance was violated and to fines. That is not a result that benefits the city. We instead wish to remember only a 2016 world championship for our beloved Cubs,” Berlin wrote.
Cubs spokesman Julian Green said the team plans to “support the Board of Ethics opinion by displaying the names of aldermen in attendance on the video board throughout the playoffs.”
Northwest Side Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41st) said he was planning to give his playoff tickets away to a friend, for fear that he would jinx his beloved Cubs.
But now that the Ethics Board has ruled he must attend, he’ll throw superstition to the wind, go to the games and risk being booed.
“Boo me as much you want. I’ve got thick skin. I’ve got firehouse skin. I won’t hear anything I haven’t heard at the firehouse. If people boo you, oh well. You know what I’ll do? I’ll get up and put my big-boy pants on in the morning and I won’t lose any sleep about being booed,” said Napolitano, a former Chicago firefighter.
Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11th) is a die-hard Sox fan like his uncle, former Mayor Richard M. Daley, and his late grandfather, former Mayor Richard J. Daley.
Thompson was planning to buy the tickets and give them away to a Bridgeport neighbor who happens to be a Cubs fan.
But now that he’s been ordered to go himself on a weekend when he plans to be out of town, Thompson said he’ll decline the ticket offer and maybe even advise his City Council colleagues to wear earplugs.
“Of course they’re going to get booed. It’s gonna be terrible,” he said.