VisitDallas gifts draw ethics complaint against Dallas council member

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A Dallas activist has filed an ethics complaint against Dallas City Council member Casey Thomas over Thomas’ failure to disclose tickets to several events he was given by VisitDallas, as first reported in July by The Texas Monitor.

VisitDallas leases the suite at the American Airlines Center from the city for $250,000 a year. Elected officials are supposed to disclose gifts worth more than $50 that they receive from any entity that has a contract with the city.

Thomas attended six events at the American Airlines Center in the VisitDallas suite. The events include concerts by Justin Timberlake, R. Kelly, Sam Smith and Bruno Mars, a basketball exhibition and a December appearance by Michelle Obama. VisitDallas is the local convention and visitors bureau.

Ticket values for each of those events exceeded the $50 threshold for disclosure. Mars, for example, charged $591 for a top seat during his 2018 tour.

According to the complaint filed by retired lawyer Barry Jacobs, the passes from VisitDallas were part of an “ongoing pattern” and Thomas expected the gifts to continue.

“Accordingly, by his acceptance of the gifts and his (inferable) anticipation of future gifts, Councilman Thomas gained an economic interest in VisitDallas,” Jacobs alleges in the complaint. He also asks for a deeper probe into how gifts from VisitDallas to city employees and officials are reported.

Thomas said this week that he was unclear on whether he had to disclose the suite visits. But after meeting with the city attorney’s office this week, he learned the gifts needed to be reported. 

He said the failure was his fault and that it will be corrected in amended gift disclosures.

“My assistant provides that information and completes the report and it was not on there due to an oversight on my part,” Thomas said.

After he accepted the tickets — one in 2016, five in 2018 — Thomas participated in council briefings over the future of VisitDallas. The organization’s continuing relationship with the city was called into question by some city council members after a city audit found excessive spending by then-CEO Phillip Jones, as well as flimsy metrics to gauge the difference that VisitDallas made in attracting tourism and conventions.

Jones resigned shortly after a story by The Texas Monitor reported numerous instances of his official travel coinciding with endurance races he participated in.

Thomas’ failure to disclose the ticket gifts created a conflict of interest, Jacobs contends, and a violation of city ethics policy.

Jacobs is asking the city’s Ethics Advisory Commission to require Thomas’ office to provide all records of communications with VisitDallas regarding the suite visits.

Records show that Thomas and former council member Monica Alonzo were the only elected city officials who used the suite.  Alonzo also did not disclose her visit for a June 16, 2017, concert by Enrique Iglesias. She lost her re-election bid in November 2017.

“This is the tip of the iceberg,” Jacobs told The Texas Monitor. He said he was going to request from the city records of all gifts, tickets or memberships that VisitDallas has provided to city employees and elected officials.

“VisitDallas is an instrumentality of the city,” he said. “And the way the IRS treats gifts between an employer and employee is that these need to be reported on taxes as compensation. Thomas is a salaried employee of the city, and VisitDallas should be withholding taxes and social security on these gifts. This guy is getting paid off the books from taxpayer coffers and is then voting on funding this entity.” 

VisitDallas officials did not respond to a call and email seeking comment. 

Jacobs in 2017 filed an ethics complaint against former Dallas City Council member Philip Kingston for using city facilities to tape a Facebook video promoting an upcoming campaign appearance. The ethics commission issued a letter of reprimand.

A panel of three of the seven council-appointed commission members is scheduled to meet Sept. 17 to decide if the complaint against Thomas has merit to go forward. If it is determined to be substantial enough, the matter goes before the whole commission, which meets quarterly. 

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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