ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) - From Rihanna to Bob Dylan to Brooks and Dunn, Albuquerque has attracted its share of big concerts in recent years. And while tickets for the general public could sometimes be hard to come by, they were within easy reach of Bernalillo County politicians.
In fact, a Larry Barker investigation discovered that the county's top managers and elected officials had access to some of the best seats at the Pavilion during the past two years. The freebies they received from entertainment giant Live Nation added up to about $80,000.
And to top it all off, not one of the politicians who accepted those thousands of dollars worth of tickets reported them as gifts.
"I think the public perception here is that elected officials and key staff have access to a benefit, a free benefit, that the general public does not," said Bernalillo County Commissioner Michelle Lujan Grisham, who took office in January. "And I think it also lends itself unfortunately to a perception that certain business entities have influence inside the county, and that's exactly what the public doesn't want."
The sweet deal centers on the Pavilion, and the relationship between Bernalillo County and Live Nation. The land underneath the amphitheater south of Albuquerque is actually owned by the state of New Mexico and leased to the county.
Live Nation, which operates the Pavilion, rents it from Bernalillo County for more than $500,000 a year.
Two years ago, County Attorney Jeff Landers and County Manager Thaddeus Lucero sweetened that deal by proposing an agreement that called for Live Nation to provide the county with 28 reserved concert tickets, VIP Club passes and VIP parking passes to each concert at the Pavilion. The deal never spelled out who was to receive the goodies.
However, the agreement required New Mexico State Land Office approval. But the land office, headed by then-Commissioner Pat Lyons, refused to sign it. Ray Powell took over as land commissioner in January.
"I, quite frankly, am bewildered, astonished, angered and frustrated that that would even be considered," Powell said. "I think it looks terrible."
So to get the lease approved, Bernalillo County had to remove the "free ticket" language from the agreement. But that didn't end the free concert deal for county higher-ups. Lucero found another way to make it happen.
The then-county manager slipped a provision for free concert tickets into a contract that provided county traffic control and security services for concerts at the Pavilion. That deal called for Live Nation to give the county 12 tickets and five VIP parking passes for every concert. But instead of providing 12 tickets, Live Nation sent over 26 tickets.
"It came as a complete shock to me that there were tickets above and beyond that were apparently part of a handshake deal that I was not aware of," said Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins.
Commissioners Hart Stebbins, Art De La Cruz, Alan Armijo, Michael Brasher and Michael Wiener each received two tickets to each concert at the Pavilion. Lucero got an eight-seat box and eight additional tickets.
Since 2009, Live Nation has given 806 concert tickets to county politicians -- more than enough to fill the Pavilion's front-center section.
By accepting free tickets, the commissioners and Lucero apparently violated the county's ethics code.
Elected officials and employees are prohibited from accepting gifts from companies, like Live Nation, who do business with the county. And gifts worth more than $250 must be disclosed under the ethics code.
Hart Stebbins, who received tickets to 62 concert tickets valued at more than $5,000, admitted attending some concerts for free.
"Out of 10 concerts last year, I probably donated my tickets -- probably five sets of tickets -- to charity," she said. "(I gave) a couple to my kids, and then I did go to two concerts last year."
De La Cruz said he gave away all the tickets he received and didn't attend a single concert. News 13 asked him who got his tickets.
"A wide array," he said. "Constituents, friends, family, employees. Frankly I didn't consider it a gift. There was a long history of it, so walking in as a new commissioner in '09, I really didn't think to question it."
Wiener also admitted attending a few concerts.
The commissioners didn't report the tickets as gifts because Landers, the county attorney, told them they didn't have to.
"The tickets that are provided to the county are received as a group ... that are not .. earmarked for any individual," Landers wrote in a memo obtained by News 13. "Because Live Nation does not make a gift of tickets directly to a commissioner, this is not an ethics issue."
Commissioners Lujan Grisham and Wayne Johnson both took office this year and are not involved in the ticket scandal.
"It's a ticket; it's a gift," Lujan Grisham said. "There isn't anybody who's not going to identify this as a gift. This conduct is absolutely inappropriate by anybody of government, and we should not be in a position to receive anything that appears as undue influence."
Lucero resigned as county manager earlier this year. Tom Zdunek is the county's interim manager.
"It appears (the tickets) should have been reported," he said.
Lucero received almost 500 free concert tickets worth an estimated $50,000 during the two-year period.
"I gave the tickets to departments, to the staff," Lucero told News 13. "I never went to any concerts, and that's what I want everybody to understand. I didn't go to any concerts last year. I think I haven't been to one in three or four years."
In addition, Lucero said he had no idea why he received the tickets.
"Why?" he said. "That's a question you have to ask Live Nation. But they felt, I think, it was just a partnership we had. I can't answer that question."
Lucero said the tickets came from the county's public information office. But county sources told News 13 that Lucero knew all about the secret concert deal with Live Nation and that the tickets were distributed according to Lucero's direction.
Live Nation's public relations firm in New York did not respond to our request for comment.
Following News 13's investigation, the county put an end to the Live Nation deal.
"I want to receive no tickets complimentary," Zdunek said. "I want to bill for services rendered and receive that compensation back to the county, and that's how I intend to operate. Pretty straight, open and honest."
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