Auburn University recently released the names of 26 state legislators who were offered the chance to buy tickets to the Auburn-South Carolina game at face value — a move some experts suspect may fall into a gray area regarding legislative ethics.
The local legislators who purchased the tickets disagree.
Those who bought tickets included local legislators Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, Rep. Randy Wood, R-Saks and Rep. Richard Laird, D-Roanoke. The total group included 23 Republicans and three Democrats.
Face-value tickets for the national championship game were also made available to 15 legislators. Auburn did not have the names of those legislators available by Thursday.
“If they are not given free tickets but are simply being given the opportunity to pay for them at face value, that may just be a gray area ethically,” said David Lanoue, former chair of political science at the University of Alabama and current dean of the College of Letters and Sciences at Columbus State University in Georgia.
“Legislators get lots of opportunities the general public doesn’t,” Lanoue said. “There has long been a debate of whether favor-seeking is related to bribery.”
Tickets to the Dec. 4 SEC championship game had a face value of $80. However, most tickets were only available to fans through resale vendors for hundreds of dollars apiece.
National championship tickets have a face value of around $300 but are currently being resold for thousands of dollars apiece.
Auburn only had an allotment of 15,900 tickets for the SEC game, and according to the university’s athletic department guidelines, preference was given to scholarship donors, suite holders and Tigers Unlimited Foundation donors who contributed more than $10,000.
Dial said he called the university and purchased four tickets for the SEC game at face value. He added that he bought four face-value tickets for the national championship game.
Dial said because Auburn University is in his district, he represents and works for the institution and does not consider the offering of tickets at face value to be a favor.
“It is just perception,” Dial said. “I think it is part of my job to represent them,” Dial said. “I am on the Troy University board and I get Troy tickets. I don’t see the problem.”
Dial noted he would not have accepted the tickets had they been offered for free.
Wood, who purchased four SEC tickets, also did not see an issue and did not believe he received preferential treatment.
“All I know is what is done on the tickets,” Wood said. “I called through normal procedures and paid face value.”
Unlike Dial and Wood, Marsh, who is president pro tem of the Senate, received a call about the tickets from Auburn.
“They called me a couple of days prior and said four tickets had become available,” Marsh said.
Marsh did not consider the tickets to be a favor since he paid the face-value price for them and the seats were not in a premier part of the stadium, but rather in the upper deck.
Attempts to reach Laird were unsuccessful.
During a special session in December, the Alabama Legislature passed a sweeping ethics reform bill. The legislation keeps people who employ lobbyists from spending more than $100 a year on legislators and bans lobbyists from spending money on a legislator. The legislation also bans the long-standing practice of Auburn and the University of Alabama of providing free tickets for the Iron Bowl to legislators.
However, nothing in the ethics reform tackles favors to legislators that have no intrinsic monetary value.
“I don’t know if you would necessarily call it a loophole, but it shows that the new laws that were passed didn’t cover everything an institution might do,” said William Stewart, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Alabama. “I do think it is an effort on the part of the institution to create goodwill, but I would not say it was a bribe.”
Stewart noted there was no guarantee a legislator who got a ticket would end up supporting the university’s future efforts. He also said it was up to the universities to establish priorities of who gets first choice of tickets.
Lanoue said the issue at hand is not a question of legality, but more a question of appearance.
“When voters see legislators getting an opportunity they don’t get, they think something is wrong,” Lanoue said. “That doesn’t make it illegal, but the appearance of preferential treatment can rub people the wrong way.”
Star staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561.