Miami-Dade County

Miami City Attorney: Ultra VIP freebies were proper

Several city of Miami lawyers and officers of the Bayfront Park Management Trust did nothing wrong by accepting free Ultra Music Festival VIP tickets, according to a legal opinion issued late Thursday by the City Attorney’s office.

The opinion, penned in response to a critical review of Ultra’s comped ticket policies, sought to clarify questions of whether city lawyers and volunteer Trust officials had broken the law by taking the $850 passes.

Auditor General Theodore Guba raised the issue Thursday afternoon in a newly published review of the music festival, in which he noted that Ultra doled out thousands of free passes this year, including 40 VIP tickets to the Bayfront Park Trust. Guba said a handful of attorneys and Trust directors received the free passes and pointed out that the city’s charter says the receipt of “free tickets” by city employees and officers was a misdemeanor.

Guba, however, acknowledged that city law and county ethics guidelines permit the receipt of freebies for “the public benefit,” and said he published the review while still awaiting a clarifying opinion from the city attorney’s office. On Thursday evening, assistant city attorney George Wysong wrote a memo saying that the charter’s language was outdated, and actually referred to old, canceled franchised transportation services.

“The language is simply archaic and does not relate to the acceptance of concert tickets,” Wysong wrote.

The receipt of free event tickets by public officials has been a longstanding practice in South Florida, but has become controversial in recent years. Two years ago, the county’s ethics commission issued a scathing report after finding that free tickets negotiated into government contracts by cities like Miami, Miami Beach and Homestead often were used as political chits by public officials.

Still, the ethics commission issued a set of recommended guidelines for when tickets could be received through contracts in the “public benefit,” and when they should be reported as gifts to individuals. In the case of Ultra, former Deputy City Attorney Maria Chiaro said the Bayfront Park Trust accepted the tickets within those guidelines.

“The city complied with the ethics commission recommendation, even though they didn’t need to,” said Chiaro, who said records showing she receiving free VIP tickets were incorrect.

Similarly, assistant city attorney Veronica Diaz, a current judicial candidate who helped negotiate the Ultra contract between operator Event Entertainment Group and the Bayfront Trust, said she received free tickets to review the conditions. “The only way to monitor if Ultra was doing everything by the book as per the contract was to attend the Festival, for which I needed a ticket.”

City Attorney Julie Bru, who according to Guba received one free VIP ticket last year, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Six volunteer directors of the Bayfront Park Trust also received passes this spring, according to Guba.

Guba began reviewing Ultra’s comped tickets at the request of Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who said he wanted to know if Ultra was paying the city what it truly owed and whether city officials were properly reporting free tickets. Recently, draft copies of the audit were leaked to local bloggers, drawing more attention to the inquiry.

In the final copy, Guba noted that he referred the receipt of free Ultra tickets to the ethics commission for an opinion on whether those receiving free tickets should report them as gifts. He also noted that the city may never know for sure exactly how many employees received free tickets, because Ultra organizers said the information is a “trade secret.”