Leaders of cash-strapped Coliseum complex claim luxury suite
The taxpayer-owned venue is in financial ruins, but four commissioners kept a private, catered area at the Sports Arena from public sale, so they had prime views of Bruce Springsteen singing about blue-collar struggles.
One expert said the Sports Arena suite could have fetched $5,000 for each Bruce Springsteen concert. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times / May 8, 2012)
The taxpayer-owned venue is in financial ruins, but the officials took their customary perks, enjoying Springsteen's blue-collar brand of rock 'n' roll from digs that included a private entry, spacious bathroom, kitchenette, lounge area and television screen.
The 19 elevated seats, boxed off from the crowd, offered dead-on views of the stage for the officeholders and their guests. Arena staff catered the roost with lasagna, sliders, vegetables and brownies, plus drinks.
The officials, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, City Councilman Tom LaBonge, David Israel and William Chadwick, run the property as members of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission. Chadwick, an investment banker, and Israel, a former sportswriter and the commission's president, represent Gov. Jerry Brown on the panel. LaBonge is an alternate.
The suite is part of a long tradition of perks for the nine-member commission, a joint authority of the city, county and state. For years, the panel, whose posts are unpaid, has received 180 free tickets to each USC game at the Coliseum — 20 per member — as well as access to a catered VIP tent.
LaBonge said the perch above center court served as a "little administrative command," allowing commissioners and staff to keep an eye on things and their presence to lift the spirits of ushers, fire inspectors and others working in the arena.
"When a councilman or commissioner walks through," he said, "it makes them feel good."
The commission kept the suite — one of just two at the arena — off-limits to public ticket sales for the pair of Springsteen concerts. The panel also reserved the suite for all UCLA basketball contests played last season at the Sports Arena, which hosted home games for the men's team during the refurbishment of the school's Pauley Pavilion.
Income from a couple of suites wouldn't save the Sports Arena from insolvency, but David Kline, spokesman for the California Taxpayers Assn., said the commissioners sent "a very bad signal to the people of Los Angeles. At a time when they sorely need to raise revenue, taking this major revenue source off the table is a luxury they can't afford."
The Coliseum and Sports Arena are deeply in the red, having lost at least $7.3 million in the past few years amid financial practices that led to corruption charges in March against three of the property's former managers, two rave concert promoters and a contractor.
After The Times asked about the Springsteen shows, an attorney for the commission said the four officials paid about $100 for each suite seat they booked, although he did not respond to a request for documentation. The attorney, Assistant County Counsel Thomas Faughnan, would not say how many guests were included.
The $100 was based on the top price for a seat elsewhere in the arena, where concertgoers fought for elbow room and queued up for a bathroom break or bag of chips.
As a package, suite tickets at other venues generally sell for much more than the cost of a regular seat in the same location. Catered food and drinks drive the price higher, said Robert Spellman, general manager of VIP Tickets, a broker.
A person familiar with local concert promotions, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly, said the Sports Arena suite could have fetched about $5,000 for each Springsteen show, not counting the catering tab.
The Springsteen concerts came as the commission projected it would soon be down to its last $15,000 in operating funds. The agency has lost more than $2 million in income allegedly siphoned off through embezzlement and kickbacks, according to court records.
Last week, the commission voted to surrender control of the Coliseum and Sports Arena to USC. The panel majority said granting the private school stewardship of the aging public venues was the only way to spare them a future of disrepair and disuse.
As part of the deal, commissioners initially required USC to give them the equivalent of 10 free tickets each to every Trojan home game during the 42-year life of a new Coliseum lease, plus premium parking and a VIP area. The panel dropped the condition after Times reports on it sparked outrage.
Over the years, Springsteen has returned to the Sports Arena in part because of his disdain for the dozens of swank suites at Staples Center, which he opened with a concert in 1999. For last month's performances, the other Sports Arena suite was assigned to the promoter.
Israel and Chadwick did not respond to interview requests; a spokesman said Brown had no comment.
Yaroslavsky spokesman Joel Bellman said the supervisor took his chief of staff to the concert and skipped the food.
When asked about the suite, LaBonge described it as a "carpeted closet." He said it shouldn't be labeled a suite, then invited a Times reporter and photographer to tour it.
In response to Times questions, he confirmed that the Coliseum's interim general manager, John Sandbrook, had the "suite" sign removed from the door before the reporter and photographer arrived. The room is identified as a suite on the arena's website and in official documents, including the commission's contract for the Springsteen concerts.
The councilman said he took three guests to the one he attended.
"I came because I wanted to have a little fun," he said. "And Bruce Springsteen is inspirational."