Mayor invites family, donors, business allies to skybox

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Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's guests in the city's private skybox at Ravens games this past season included a small circle of city employees, prominent business leaders, donors to her campaign, and several family members, documents show.

City officials say there are no restrictions on whom the mayor can invite to the skybox, which is provided at no cost to Rawlings-Blake, as it was to her predecessors, under the lease agreement for what is now called M&T Bank Stadium. Documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a public records request indicate that the mayor extended invitations for both personal and political purposes.

At the last home game before Baltimore's primary election in September, the mayor's guests included her chief political fundraiser, a high-profile lawyer whose firm donated generously to her campaign and the head of a union who later appeared at a campaign event with her.

A mayoral spokesman said Wednesday that the tickets were not intended as a reward for campaign donations or political support. He noted that previous Baltimore mayors, as well as those in other cities, also control stadium boxes. The tickets, he pointed out, are provided to the city at no cost.

"The passes are not paid for with taxpayer funds and there is nothing new or unusual about it," spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said in an email.

He said Rawlings-Blake invites "community, business and faith leaders, elected officials, youth workers, family members and hardworking public servants" in order to strengthen "working relationships that ultimately benefit the City."

The Sun requested the documents after the mayor's skybox was thrust into the limelight when Rawlings-Blake rescinded an offer of tickets for the Jan. 11 playoff game against the Houston Texans to Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young. The mayor withdrew the invitation after Young publicly criticized her efforts to plan another Grand Prix IndyCar race.

Staffers told Young that his presence would have made Rawlings-Blake's supporters and family uncomfortable, sources said at the time.

The stadium was built with $200 million in public financing. According to the Maryland Stadium Authority, the offices of the mayor and the governor were given plum skyboxes through an addendum to the lease agreement for the stadium in 1995.

In a letter, then Ravens-owner Art Modell told the stadium authority, "One suite in a favorable location shall be provided, free of charge, to each of [the Maryland Stadium Authority], the Governor of Maryland and the Mayor of the City of Baltimore. Concessions shall be sold at cost in each of these suites."

The city has not yet released information about concession expenses.

The 117 pages of documents obtained by The Sun indicate that Rawlings-Blake administration officials had numerous discussions about who should get invitations for the past season's games.

The mayor's family members were present at all 11 home games, including two in the preseason and one playoff game. The mayor's husband, mother, brother and sister-in-law attended nearly every game. About a dozen other relatives piled into the skybox on Christmas Eve.

At every game, some city employees were present. Guests included council members and the retiring director of finance, Edward Gallagher. The mayor's personal assistants, Elizabeth Koontz and Kimberly McConkey, attended nearly every game.

Koontz was also in charge of inviting business leaders to the skybox and handling requests from city officials who were angling for an invitation. She exchanged numerous emails with chief of staff Peter O'Malley over who would receive tickets.

In late November, Koontz forwarded to O'Malley an email from deputy housing commissioner Ken Strong asking to bring his daughter Jasmine to the Dec. 11 game to celebrate her 17th birthday.

"Let's worry about Ken another time," O'Malley wrote back.

Koontz reminded him that it was the last game for which tickets were available for the year. "The Christmas eve game is only going to be family," she wrote.

"Will think about it," O'Malley replied.

Small businessman Dominic Petrucci said he attended the Sept. 11 season opener against the Steelers as a guest of the mayor's. He said he's been friends with Rawlings-Blake since before she became City Council president.

"I'm a small contractor in Baltimore," said Petrucci, a native of Italy. "I've never, ever done any work for Baltimore City. It takes too long to get paid."

Petrucci said he does a lot of fundraising for various campaigns, and started to enjoy watching the Ravens about five years ago — in addition to his favorite sports of soccer and bocce.

"I've known Stephanie for a long time," he said. "That's how I got invited to the skybox. Just as a friend. I enjoyed the game."

Jon Laria, a lawyer who represented the developers of a planned Walmart shopping center in Remington, attended the Thanksgiving night game against San Francisco. He is a partner in the Ballard Spahr law firm and contributed money to Rawlings-Blake's campaign.

He said he could not recall who approached whom about attending the game. "It was a very nice time," he said. "It's a great stadium. I was pleased to be there."

Perhaps the most politically charged gathering was the Aug. 25 preseason game against the Washington Redskins. The guests included Colleen Martin-Lauer, who supervises fundraising for Rawlings-Blake and the majority of the City Council; political heavyweight Richard O. Berndt, whose law firm contributed to the mayor's campaign; and David McClure, a union leader who appeared at a campaign event with the mayor a couple weeks later.

Neither Martin-Lauer, Berndt nor McClure could be reached for comment Wednesday.

Brandon Scott, then a City Council candidate, also attended the Aug. 25 game and sat in the city's box. He said he asked the mayor for the tickets because a community leader had expressed an interest in attending the game. Scott took him as his guest.

Scott, now a councilman, said his guest enjoyed the skybox, but he personally considers the environment too controlled.

"I hate sitting in skyboxes," Scott said. "I'm a real sports fan. It's so far away from the action. I'd rather be out there with the fans."

Scott said he recalls the box serving "normal stadium food," such as fries and chicken fingers.

Councilman Robert Curran, who attended the Thanksgiving game against San Francisco, said Baltimore's mayors have traditionally honored with tickets council members whose work they appreciate.

"It's been traditional," he said. "Mayor Dixon did it. Mayor O'Malley did it. Mayor Kurt Schmoke did it. It's a courtesy extended by the mayor. You take her up on the offer. It's a little kudos to folks. I don't think it's a quid-pro-quo. It's an honor."

Baltimore Sun reporter Steve Kilar contributed to this report.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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