Monday, February 27, 2017

Maybe Sarasota Was Listening When I Warned Them About Those Crafty MLB Teams

County officials are unveiling the proposed framework for a deal to build the Atlanta Braves a new spring training stadium home in North Port, and many recent changes to the language in the proposal reflect warnings about tax dollars issued by WTSP-TV earlier this month. The team is planning on relocating to North Port if it can finalize a $75.4 million stadium deal, financed by three different government entities and a private developer.

Taxpayers across the country often has little insight as to the private negotiations between local governments, developers, and professional teams prior to the execution of a deal. But 10Investigates fought to obtain draft negotiating documents under Florida’s public records laws, and published a list of some risks the Braves and a North Port developer were looking for the county to take on in the deal.

Some of those risks appear to have been eliminated by the county during recent negotiations, including language that left Sarasota County on the hook for any potential cost overruns, and an option for the Braves to buy out of their contract after only 20 years in North Port.

New language was also added that guarantees the county use of the stadium, otherwise controlled at all times by the Braves, for up to 10 non-profit events each year.

But other potential concessions to the team remain in the proposed agreement, including annual county subsidies for capital improvements to the stadium. The county has similar language in its contract with the Baltimore Orioles, who train in Sarasota.

The letter of intent commissioners will discuss Tuesday also calls on the county to take ownership of the stadium from the developer while an MLB team (or teams) call it home, then giving it back to the developer afterward. That means the county is essentially borrowing the property for the purpose of helping the Braves avoid the typical property taxes that most other local businesses and homeowners pay in Sarasota County.

A county spokesperson added Sarasota has ad valorem tax exemption program for qualifying businesses that is not just limited to professional sports.

The developer and Braves are also asking to be exempt from sales taxes on construction material, another concession that most local businesses and homeowners would not be afforded.

The proposal also allows the Braves to retain all revenues from the stadium, but exempts them from having to pay Sarasota County any rent for the first 30 years of their stay there, instead paying only $2.0-$2.5 million per year to the developer to help pay off the corporation’s debt service on the stadium. One initial draft version called for annual payments between $3.75 and $4.5 million.

Sarasota County also stands to gain from a promotional partnership with the Braves, but the proposed contract only requires the Braves to “work with the county” on an annual plan. As the county learned the hard way with its Baltimore Orioles spring stadium negotiations, if it isn’t in writing, promises don’t count.

Sarasota County commissioners will discuss the letter of intent for the $75.4 million, 6,500-seat North Port stadium - and the $21.3 million desired in county funding - Tuesday morning at their regular meeting.

A message left with the Braves had not yet been returned Monday.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

House Speaker Says "Zero" Chance Bucs Get State Subsidies This Year

Florida Speaker of the House, Richard Corcoran, told me last week that there was "zero" chance the Buccaneers get the roughly $10 million in state subsidies they're seeking for their ongoing Raymond James Stadium renovations, even though they are the only professional team seeking money from the state this year: Here's more on the "scheme" he's referring to, that made it easier for pro sports teams to get multi-million-dollar tax breaks. Ironically, a conservative legislature has still denied the funding every year since the law changed. 2017 looks to be no different, thanks to Corcoran and some like-minded counterparts of his in the Senate.

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A Few Tweets Following Disclosure of Rays' Cash to Kriseman Campaign

Following several years of controversy as he tried to help the Rays explore their options in Hillsborough, St. Petersburg's mayor collected on a little bit of the debt:
It doesn't look like that even includes the $1,000 each from Rays presidents Brian Auld and Matthew Silverman, so the total from the team and executives appears to be even higher.  We're still waiting, however, to hear anything of consequence from the Rays.

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Thursday, February 9, 2017

Secret Documents Reveal What Braves are Asking From Sarasota

After a protracted public records battle with Sarasota County, I finally obtained public records exchanged between the county and the Atlanta Braves that reveal several concessions the major league team appears to be seeking from the county during negotiations over its future spring training home.
Sarasota County had previously claimed the records were confidential, but 10Investigates pressed county leaders on their “trade secrets” public records exemption to obtain several draft agreements between the two parties over the past two years.

The county says it has not agreed to any of the terms of the deal yet, other than contributing bed tax revenues to a new stadium, making annual contributions to a capital improvements fund, and assuming ownership of the facility after construction is completed.
But comparing the Braves’ initial letter of intent to its most recent letter, several significant changes were made during the course of negotiations for their proposed deal:
  • A "community benefits" clause was removed from the agreement, which would have allowed Sarasota County to host public meetings, conventions, conferences, non-profit events, and amateur sporting events at the facility when the Braves were not using it. However, a county representative says that is a non-negotiable.
  • A "construction materials sales taxes" clause was added, asking Sarasota County to use "reasonable best efforts" to ensure construction materials will be exempt from state and local sales taxes. However, that may run afoul of state law since the county will not be the owner of the facility during construction.
  • A clause was added to ensure the Braves "shall have no obligation to provide its financials to (the county) or any other third party during the term of such debt."
  • A "cost overruns" clause was added to require Sarasota County to pick up an additional $20 million in project financing if state financing cannot be secured. However, a county representative says there is "no deal" without the state funding.
  • The Braves also got the county to agree to contribute a yet-to-be-disclosed annual amount to a capital improvement fund for repairs and replacements to the facility and surrounding player housing. In original drafts, the team was responsible for all capital improvements.
  • The county will also be asked to ban street vendors within half a mile of the ballpark.
Sarasota learned the hard way in 2009, while negotiating with the Orioles, that anything not in writing is far from guaranteed. 10Investigates exposed how a promised Cal Ripken youth facility was never delivered because the county never got it in writing.
Other notable clauses in the latest draft contract sent to the county:
  • The county would assume ownership of the facility, but provide the Braves with year-round control of the facility. This insures the team will not have to pay property taxes.
  • The Braves also retain "all revenues" from events held at the "public" facility, including parking on county property.
  • The Braves will pay for the day-to-day maintenance and operating expenses to operate the facility.
  • The Braves will pay the developer somewhere between $3.75 million and $4.5 million per year for rent, but according to documents, the team "wants to make no up-front capital contribution to development/construction of the Facility."
  • The 30-year lease is actually a 20-year lease, since the Braves can opt out anytime in the final 10 years of the contract, provided they give the county 12 months' notice and pay off any outstanding public debt (if any still exists) on the project. Here's more on the 2014 state law that made it easier for MLB teams to break spring training leases.
The project is estimated to be complete by January 2018 and is expected to be financed by four parties:
  • The West Villages is donating $7 to $9 million worth of land, plus $12 to $20 million in infrastructure costs;
  • The City of North Port will contribute $4 to $5 million;
  • Sarasota County plans to contribute approximately $22 million from its bed tax collections;
  • The state is being counted on to pay for $20 million in construction.

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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Catching Up on Lost Reading: Rowdies/Rays, Stadium Subsidies, and More

So much good sports business little time.

Here are a few good links I've come across in recent weeks worth some attention:
  1. Tampa Bay Times: St. Pete may have to choose between Rays and Rowdies - I couldn't agree more, even if Bill Edwards decides to foot the entire $80 million stadium bill and $150 million MLS expansion fee himself.  As I've written before, there's just not enough disposable income and population to support another major pro team in Tampa Bay, let alone St. Pete.
  2. Fangraphs: Relocation less common in MLB than other leagues - Past performance isn't an indicator of future performance...except when it gives a glimpse into MLB's hesitance to move franchises around, despite its proclivity to threaten to do so.
  3. Bloomberg: Brooklyn is dumping the Islanders - Apparently, the Barclays Center is realizing it was losing money on hockey and despite an "ironclad lease," the Islanders could be homeless by 2018.
  4. Tampa Bay Times op-eds: the case for and the case against public spending on sports stadiums.
  5. Bloomberg also chimed in on the case for spending money on pro stadiums.
  6. Joe Henderson: Build your own damn stadium, ballpark, or arena - Good questions why struggling municipalities continue to be expected to pay for billionaires' businesses.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Poor Braves Will Have to Buy Their Own Furniture...But Won't Release Documents That Would Prove It

So the Braves finally found a county (on their fifth try) to build them a spring training park...
The plan is to get the county, state, city of North Port, and a private developer to split the cost four-ways.  That's correct, only four ways:
The best part of the day was the Braves suggesting that taking the burden of furniture and equipment (you know, like baseballs) off the taxpayers' shoulders counts as "paying their fair share."

But the second-best part of the day came after I do what I do...and requested documents.

See, the Braves and Sarasota County are suggesting they're exempt from certain Florida public record laws because of trade of the same exemptions used by rapper Pitbull and public agency Visit Florida to deny our 2015 public records request into the artist’s taxpayer-funded tourism contract. That story ultimately cost three of the agency’s top executives their jobs.

Officially, county spokesperson Jason Bartolone responded that the Braves “have asserted confidentiality rights” under Florida State Statute 288.075, which aims to protect proprietary business information and trade secrets in public-private economic development deals.

Of course, it doesn't do a great job always protecting the taxpayer....who could use a little help after we showed how Sarasota County failed to get all of the Baltimore Orioles' 2009 spring training promises in writing, ultimately resulting in the failure to ever get that promised economy-driving Cal Ripken youth academy built.

I have some questions if the Braves are really allowed to use this more about it here on

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Friday, January 13, 2017

Hillsborough County Can't Stop Negotiating Against Itself Over Rays

Earlier this week, I reported how "Pinellas and Hillsborough leaders were doing everything possible to create a Rays bidding war." But there were a few interesting nuggets in that story worth even further discussion.

In addition to failing to communicate with his counterparts across the bay, Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan continued to play into the Rays' hand by throwing out an artificially-high estimates for the cost of a stadium ($550-$700 million), getting the sticker shock out of the way now so when the number comes down to, say, $500 million, later...officials may actually suggest it's a better deal than they had anticipated.

But there's no way the Rays are actually eyeing a $550-$700 million stadium in a region that's been subsidy-adverse. Hagan said the team may choose to go without an upper deck and retractable roof (they will), bringing the cost down.

Yet those high numbers - coupled with Hagan's prediction that the Rays would bring $200-$250 million to the team (even though they've refused to discuss it publicly since 2008) - leaves a $250-$500 million funding gap (plus any cost of land acquisition)!  And Hagan's tone and comments suggested he had that part of the equation under control.

See, at a time the team isn't saying anything publicly, Hagan is negotiating against himself - and Pinellas.  That only serves to drive the public contribution on a stadium up, possibly over $250-$300 million. Then, when the team reduces its $700 million stadium plan down to $500 million, they only have to contribute $200 million. See how this slippery slope can work?

ALSO READ: Three Things the Rays' Stadium Saga Needs in 2017

As for that tug-of-war, St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman is doing his part to avoid it by not talking money until the team chooses its choice location.  But Hagan and Hillsborough aren't playing by the same rules, and the lack of communication does nothing to protect taxpayers.

But I warned you this was coming.

In fact, the Times' editorial board, which more recently opined that stadium spending is often a good use of tax dollars, even issued caution against this St. Pete/Tampa tug-of-war, urging collaboration nearly a year ago:
The independent stadium efforts taking place in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties "should be complementary rather than competitive efforts, and the common goal should be keeping a regional asset that benefits the entire area."
There are some legit questions that need to be asked of Hillsborough's stadium negotiator-in-chief...but Hagan refuses to acknowledge my interview requests and makes a point to show up to meetings 30 seconds late and leave 30 seconds early.  That way, the "public servant" is able to ensure reporters cannot approach him easily at public events.

Well, my invitation remains open, Commissioner.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Pinellas, Hillsborough Doing Everything They Can to Create Rays Bidding War

Elected leaders in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties vowed to do anything possible to keep the Rays in the region long-term. But my latest report for WTSP-TV reveals there's been zero coordination between the two sides as they each compete to build the Rays a new ballpark, even disagreeing on informal ground rules to prevent a bidding war.

As the Rays' stadium saga enters its 10th year, officials in both Hillsborough County and St. Petersburg have been meeting privately with the team to discuss possible stadium locations.

Hillsborough's lead negotiator, County Commissioner Ken Hagan, told WDAE-AM on Monday {audio starts at 7:30 mark here} he has worked with the Rays to narrow a list of sites down to "one or two" that would connect Tampa's downtown, Channelside, and Ybor neighborhoods together.

Hagan, who has repeatedly refused WTSP's interview requests, also said the county's bankers in New York have been meeting with the Rays' banking team to discuss stadium financing, possibly a bigger challenge for the region than finding an appropriate site.

RELATED: Hagan, Rays avoid transparency

But that conflicts with what St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said he was hoping for to avoid a potential bidding war between Hillsborough and Pinellas.

"When we start getting into detailed conversations about financing," Kriseman said, "what we set ourselves up for is a bidding war, and then the taxpayers are the losers when that happens.”

St. Petersburg has been meeting with the Rays privately as well, and seems to hold a distinct advantage over Hillsborough County when it comes to available funding streams for a new stadium, since Hillsborough is already paying for two other stadiums and a convention center.

Kriseman has also been bullish on the possibility of a new stadium next to the existing stadium, so redevelopment at the Tropicana Field site could help fund the project.

When asked why he hasn't sat down at the table with the Rays and Tampa/Hillsborough officials, Kriseman said he expected each side to pitch its best site and let the Rays choose their favorite. Kriseman said he hoped both counties would then rally around the chosen site and hope the financing fell into place.

"We’re not getting into a bidding war because that doesn’t do any of us any good," Kriseman said.

St. Pete has even enlisted Dick Vitale in its "Baseball Forever" campaign.

But strictly looking at location, Hillsborough may have an advantage. The possibility of a stadium within walking distance to both Channelside and Ybor City may be difficult to pass up. However, the financing would be a major challenge there.

“For this to work, the team’s going to have to be at the table with at least $200 million, maybe $250 million," Hagan said on WDAE.

He added the overall cost of a stadium might be in the “550 to 700 million-dollar range," depending on things like whether it would have a retractable roof and an upper deck.

But that leaves a funding gap of at least $300-400 million. Hillsborough County's tourist tax would likely fund only about $75-80 million of construction.

Hagan said in 2010 that he objected to any public funding going toward a new stadium, but has changed his tune in recent years, telling WDAE "there will have to be some public money involved, hopefully primarily tourist tax dollars.”

RELATED: How Ken Hagan flipped on Rays stadium subsidies

Hagan suggested tax dollars could contribute toward a project's "infrastructure" and "perhaps mass transit."

The Rays have also not responded to WTSP's requests for comment regarding possible funding and preferred locations.

But the team has two more years to explore both sides of the bay. And given the lack of political opportunity for substantial subsidies right now, it appears they may continue to take their time.

Following his interview with me, Kriseman tweeted the following:

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Friday, January 6, 2017

Please Stop Acknowledging "Economic Impact Reports"

Don't ever believe anything you hear from economic impact reports - ESPECIALLY if the party that initiated it has a vested interest in the outcome.

But alas, our politicians fail to grasp this concept. So I brought my boss' 4-year-old son in to explain:

You can read the rest of the article here.

Or, any number of previous posts I've written on the topic.

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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Lawmakers Consider Ending Florida Stadium Subsidies Once and For All

Following the revamp of Florida's "sports development program" in 2014, I had a number of not-so-supportive things to say about it:

But this week, with a powerful state senator's announcement that he wanted to repeal the incentive program, I had the following reactions:

Stay tuned on this one.

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Monday, January 2, 2017

Three Things the Rays' Stadium Saga Needs in 2017

Two years ago, I wrote "Three Things the Rays Stadium Saga Needs in 2015."  Unfortunately, nobody listened to me and we're still in a confusing stalemate, because two of the three things never happened:
  1. True Regional Approach Toward the Rays (Pinellas & Hillsborough are still bidding against each other)
  2. Transparency From the Rays Regarding Money (We still have no idea how much public cash the team wants)
  3. Less Heavy-Handedness from Editorial Boards and Sports Talk Hosts (Hey, this actually happened!)
Maybe it's just that Tampa Bay now has fewer editorial boards and fewer sports talk hosts.  But the slight reprieve from regular criticisms and claims the Rays are about leave without "progress in the upcoming year" has been nice.  Especially since so many years went by without progress and the Rays haven't yet left.

How long can we enjoy this silence?  Who knows, but the Tampa Bay Times' annual editorial pleading for stadium progress was pretty mild this time around.

So my "three things the Stadium Saga needs" hasn't really changed since 2015.  Regional collaboration, transparency, and fewer political criticisms remain the path forward for anyone hoping to keep the Rays here long-term in a way that makes financial sense for the region.

2015 Times: Year of hope in Stadium Saga

2015 Times: St. Pete needs to let Rays look this year
2015 Trib: Stadium progress is hope for new year
2015 Shadow of the Stadium: Three things the debate needs this year

2014 Times: Kriseman should solve stalemate "within months"
2014 Trib/Times: Time for progress

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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Dick Vitale: Build New Rays Park in St. Pete

Dick Vitale may loathe Trop attendance, but he's throwing his support behind the city of St. Pete's "Baseball Forever" campaign to build a new Rays ballpark on the Pinellas side of Tampa Bay:
To his credit, Vitale drives up from his home in Sarasota dozens of times a year to support the Rays, and he's also an unabashed critic of the Trop's critics.  I'm sure he doesn't want to have to navigate Tampa traffic 30-40 times a year.

But the bigger question remains, WHY ARE TAMPA AND ST. PETE COMPETING OVER THE RAYS?  Nobody stands to lose more than the taxpayer when you hand a pro sports team free leverage.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Rayz Have 99 Problems...But Gettin' Rich Ain't One

What do the Tampa Bay Rays and Jay-Z have in common?

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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Strong's Deal with USF Worth $9.8 Million (maybe*)

Charlie Strong's new head coaching contract at USF will pay him $9.8 million over the next five years, with the majority of the salary coming in the back half of the deal, according to the deal just released by the university.

The contract also sets a buyout figure of up to $2.5 million if Strong, the former head coach at the University of Texas, leaves USF for another job before the end of the five-year deal. The buyout would drop to $1.7 million if Strong were to leave in 2020 or 2021, prior to the Dec. 31, 2021 expiration of his contract.

The deal, signed this week, also guarantees the former University of Texas coach perks such as:
  • A country club membership;
  • A courtesy vehicle or $800/mo stipend;
  • Revenues from football camps Strong runs at USF;
  • A suite at all home football games plus six season tickets;
  • Four season tickets to all USF home basketball games.
By contrast, former coach Willie Taggart, who left USF for Oregon, received a similar salary and most of the same perks. But Taggart's contract also included a number of additional performance bonuses and a second vehicle (or stipend of $1,200/mo).

Strong's assistant coach salary pool will also grow from $1.6 million in 2017 to $3.4 million in 2019. Taggart's pool was $2.4 million in 2016.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Free Tickets for Tampa Bay Politicians

Many of the politicians who decide how many tax dollars will go to benefit Tampa Bay’s professional sports franchises are also accepting free tickets to those teams’ games. And many of those elected officials are failing to properly disclose the gifts.

As part of my duties for WTSP-TV, I've been tracking the attendee lists for Tampa Sports Authority’s luxury box at Raymond James Stadium, as well as state gift disclosures for Tampa Bay-area politicians over the last three years. And a number of potential conflicts of interest might be present, as the Bucs, Lightning and Rays have all courted local governments for tax money in the past 12 months.

The Tampa Sports Authority (TSA) refused interviews for this story but said its suite typically includes beer, wine, liquor, and a number of casual food items such as burgers and Cuban sandwiches.  Occasionally, crab cakes and sushi may be added. And access to politically-influential business leaders is always on the menu.

Florida law generally allows local politicians to accept gifts, such as free tickets, but it also requires politicians to publicly disclose any gift received over $100. Some officials tell me they outright reject any ticket or gift offers, for they could be perceived as a conflict of interest. But some gift-receiving politicians are better about filing their required state disclosures each quarter than others.

“I believe that anybody who is making a decision, if they are serving a public entity ... should disclose (receiving tickets),” said former Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who filed quarterly gift disclosures every quarter while in office, even if he didn’t accept any gifts during the period.

“Needless to say, I think we all know we have to keep a very close eye on politicians,” said current Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Stacy White. “Sometimes a gift can be a favor in return for some type of preferential treatment, perhaps a vote.”

But White was among the politicians we found failing to disclose some of the tickets he received from the TSA. While he had filled out gift disclosures for tickets in the past, he did not in the spring of 2015 or 2016, when he received a total of 10 Monster Jam tickets to the TSA suite (value: $450).

“That was simply an oversight by my part, but I genuinely appreciate and respect that you hold government officials accountable,” White replied. “Rest assured that we’re going to look at these not only once or twice, but three times looking forward.”

10Investigates also found that tickets to the TSA’s suite at Raymond James Stadium commonly end up in the hands of politicians’ friends and family members, rather than in the hands of business leaders or charities. An agency spokesperson said the TSA’s goal of the ticket allocations was “to further community relations, economic development and the like.”

Other findings:
  • Hillsborough Commissioner Sandy Murman received three luxury box tickets to the 2016 Outback Bowl for her husband but did not disclose them. She said she thought it was to be disclosed at the end of the year. She purchases her own Bucs tickets to avoid any appearance of a conflict.
  • Commissioner Les Miller has regular access to Bucs and USF suites, but because the tickets are always left for his wife, former city councilwoman Gwen Miller, he isn’t legally obligated to disclose them.
  • Tampa City Council members and Hillsborough County commissioners on the TSA board do not consider their stadium tickets as gifts, even though they get two suite tickets to every game, match and concert held there. 10Investigates found no disclosure for the tens of thousands of dollars in tickets they receive each year, and there is no way to tell if they are bringing friends, family, associates or even campaign donors.
  • Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a frequent guest of local sports teams, has publicly disclosed receiving Tampa Bay Lightning playoff tickets four times from three different sources: the team, SunTrust Bank and the Tampa Bay Times (twice).  He also disclosed a pair of tickets to the Glazer Family’s Buccaneers suite in 2014, but told 10Investigates he has never received any suite tickets to Tropicana Field.
  • St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman – as well as city council members – regularly disclose receiving free concert and sporting event tickets, typically from the city’s allocation at public venues such as Tropicana Field, the Mahaffey Theater and the St. Petersburg Grand Prix. Several Pinellas commissioners and Tampa City Council members also received Rays tickets from local organizations and businesses.
  • Many politicians have also disclosed receiving free travel expenses for trips to Cuba (including Kriseman and Pinellas commissioner Janet Long) as well as international economic development missions (Kriseman and Hillsborough commissioner Al Higginbotham).
  • State Senator Tom Lee, who is not allowed to accept any gift worth more than $25 as a state legislator, received a pair of suite tickets to the Feb. 2016 Monster Jam at Raymond James Stadium from the TSA’s lobbyist, Ron Pierce. Lee later paid Pierce for the Monster Jam tickets, but Pierce was allowed to keep the money. Lee sent 10Investigates a canceled check to Pierce for tickets to a number of undisclosed events.
  • The office of USF President Judy Genshaft is given full discretion on whom to invite to her suite at Raymond James Stadium for USF home games, but the office has struggled to provide the records on who has attended in recent years.  An invite list shows most local mayors and Congressional members have been invited, but several of the individuals said they never attended. The university receives – and lobbies for – tax dollars from local, state, and federal governments.
  • 10Investigates requested the public records on politicians receiving free tickets at University of Florida and Florida State University football games, but neither university was able to provide records in time for publishing.
  • About half of local council members and commissioners in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties did not fill out a single gift disclosure in the last three years.
The Rays, Buccaneers and Lightning also all invite politicians to games, often in the club or suite level. But since the teams are private businesses, their records are not available through public record requests. The Lightning use the same lobbyist as the Tampa Sports Authority.

The city of Tampa also has an additional provision in the city code requiring all elected officials - as well as any employees who are appointed, work in procurement, permitting or zoning - to fill out additional disclosures annually for any gift, including tickets, over $100 in value. Tampa's public records liason told 10Investigates the city doesn't have a single disclosure on file in recent years.

Commissioner Murman added that Hillsborough’s county attorney’s office will add gift disclosures to its annual ethics training to improve compliance and transparency in the future.

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