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Ethics complaints over free SXSW tickets dismissed

Monday, June 27, 2016 by Cate Malek

Complaints against two city officials alleging that they used their positions to acquire free tickets to the South by Southwest Interactive Festival were dismissed quickly by the City Council Ethics Review Commission on June 22.

The commission determined that although the high cost of the tickets — over $1,000 each — raised some eyebrows, neither official violated city code. The decision hinged on the fact that neither official has influence over the SXSW festival and that attending the festival was necessary for both of their work with the city’s Community Technology and Telecommunications Commission (CTTC).

Lemuel Williams, the chair of the CTTC, was named in one of the complaints, which said that he had requested four free tickets to attend the SXSW Interactive Festival from its director, Hugh Forrest. Williams has been chair of the CTTC, a volunteer position, for nine years.

A connected complaint named Rondella Hawkins, who serves in a staff position as the director of the Office of Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs. She also serves as staff liaison to the CTTC, and so works closely with the commission. Hawkins purchased one ticket for SXSW Interactive with her department funds and then negotiated for three free tickets.

Pinaki Ghosh, who worked with the CTTC until he resigned in March, made the complaint after he filed an open records request and received copies of Williams’ and Hawkins’ email exchanges in which they requested the tickets.

“This is a shameless exhibition of the corruption that is eating many parts of our city government,” Ghosh wrote in the complaint. “The commissions are supposed to be independent bodies and be eyes and ears of the council members to provide them the best possible advice.”

The CTTC was set up to advise Council on community technology. Both Hawkins and Williams emphasized their work on improving access to technology for underserved populations.

The section of city code that applies to these complaints is Section 2-7-62, which reads, in part, “No City official or employee shall accept or solicit any gift of favor that might reasonably tend to influence that individual in the discharge of official duties or that the official or employee knows or should know has been offered with the intent to influence or reward official conduct.”

Another subsection of the code reads, “No salaried City official or employee shall use his official position to secure a special privilege or exemption for himself or others… .”

The Ethics Review Commission called a preliminary hearing to consider the complaints and decide whether they should continue to a full hearing.

“This question is not an easy one, and if it’s not an easy one, we would usually let it go to final hearing,” said Commissioner Brian Thompson. But he said that the word that stuck out to him in the code was influence, and because neither official had any decision-making power over the SXSW festival, the tickets couldn’t have been used to influence them.

Commission Chair Peter Einhorn also referred to a bulletin sent out to city staff members that gave some guidelines about what they could accept. The bulletin said that accepting free tickets was generally appropriate. However, the commission agreed that the high cost of these tickets may put them in another category because an average citizen wouldn’t be able to afford to attend the SXSW Interactive Festival.

Commissioners plan to work on drafting new guidelines that clarify city policy on receiving gifts — especially extremely high-value items like the SXSW tickets.

“The city typically operates under the idea that appointed officials or elected officials should not be given opportunities that would not otherwise be given to the general public,” said Commissioner Ben Stratmann.

Photo by That Other Paper made available through a Creative Commons License.

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