VisitDallas: Suite passes don’t have to be reported

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Dallas’ beleaguered convention and visitors bureau now says that the passes to its American Airlines Center suite that the agency has given to two city council members since 2016 shouldn’t be considered gifts that need to be reported on financial disclosure forms.

Dallas City Council member Casey Thomas, who failed to report six visits to the suite in 2016 and 2018, has already acknowledged that he should have reported them. He filed amended gift disclosures last week.  

On Tuesday, a panel of the city’s Ethics Advisory Commission ruled that a citizen complaint over Thomas’ failure to report the suite tickets will move forward to be heard by the full commission.

VisitDallas, as the convention bureau is now known, leases the suite from the city for $250,000 a year. A city ordinance requires elected officials to disclose all gifts worth more than $50 they receive from any entity that has a contract with the city. VisitDallas has no role in defining what constitutes a gift in that situation.

After accepting the tickets, Thomas participated in council briefings over the future of VisitDallas.

The organization’s continuing relationship with the city was called into question by some 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 makes 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.

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.

The claim that guest passes to the suite do not need to be reported came from VisitDallas spokeswoman Stephanie Faulk, in an email.

“VisitDallas does not consider City officials’ attendance at the American Airlines Center suite and other VisitDallas functions to be gifts,” Faulk said in the email, “as their presence serves a business purpose in representing and promoting the City to event sponsors.”  

But VisitDallas doesn’t get to determine what constitutes a gift, said Barry Jacobs, who filed the complaint last week, alleging that Thomas breached conflict-of-interest rules by failing to disclose the suite visits and then voting on matters regarding VisitDallas.

“I’m not sure of the authority VisitDallas believes that it has,” Jacobs said. He pointed out that several other council members have reported as gifts the tickets that they received from VisitDallas for other events.

Faulk also said that, if officials who receive the suite passes do report them on financial disclosure forms, it’s up to the officials to put a value on them. 

Ticket values for each of those events exceeded the $50 threshold for disclosure. At one of the concerts attended by Thomas in 2018, for example, top seats went for $591. 

In his amended disclosures, Thomas placed the total value of the tickets at $1,628.50 for the six events. He reported receiving multiple tickets for all events, including six for a basketball tournament in August 2018. 

Like several other council members, Thomas reported two tickets to the Byron Nelson golf tournament from VisitDallas on his original gift reports, which he valued at $300 apiece.  He also reported an $85 polo shirt from VisitDallas.

“There are a number of gifts that are given and the reporting was not done until it was brought to the attention of the council member,” ethics commission member William Coleman said at Tuesday’s hearing.

The panel reviews ethics complaints before they go to the full board, whose seven members are appointed by the mayor and council. 

Thomas told The Texas Monitor last week that the omission of the suite passes on his financial disclosure form was an accident.

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

He said that he was being assisted in his defense by the city attorney’s office, which declined to comment.

Jacobs on Monday filed an open records request with the city for records of all gifts made by VisitDallas to “any official or employee of the City of Dallas, any member of a City of Dallas board or commission, or any employee, officer or director of VisitDallas or any immediate family member of any of the foregoing during the calendar year 2018.”

He also filed a separate request for emails that might include a discussion of tickets from VisitDallas, from the city email accounts of Thomas, city council member Chris Soto and Thomas’ assistant Yolanda Miller.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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