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Strikeout! Ruling means most Hennepin County officials can’t land Twins’ opening day tickets

The campaign board has ruled that most public officials participating in opening day ceremonies cannot be seated for the Twins game because that would constitute a gift from a lobbyist.

Most of the public officials who will be participating in opening day ceremonies at the Minnesota Twins new baseball field will not be able to sit down during the April 12 game against the Boston Red Sox.

Unless they purchased a ticket for the opener through means available to the public — through a season ticket package, or via a lottery held for the public — they can’t even buy a ticket from the Twins, which had held back 1,000 seats for special guests.

The ruling (PDF) — released today by the state’s Campaign Finance & Public Disclosure Board — does allow officials to participate in pre-game ceremonies. But after that, they must either leave the park or just mill around and try to stay out of the way.

The purchase of a seat, even at face value, would violate the state’s prohibition of gifts from a lobbyist (in this case, the Twins) to a public official, the board said.

The ruling was sought by Hennepin County (PDF), when four of its board members — Mike Opat, Peter McLaughlin, Mark Stenglein and Randy Johnson — were invited to participate in opening day ceremonies. Those were the four who faced public wrath when they voted in favor of using a special Hennepin County sales tax to fund the public’s portion of the new ballpark.

Opat will play the biggest role in opening day ceremonies, because he played the biggest role in pushing the measure, which did not allow a public referendum, through a reluctant Legislature. He’s to be one of four people throwing out the first pitch at the first regular-season home game.

Opat, it should be noted, will have a seat because he had purchased a season-ticket package through regular means.

But even though the others were asked by the team to participate in the ceremonies and even though the team was willing to sell them seats at face value, the campaign finance board answered with a resounding “No!”

Purchasing those tickets, the board ruled, would be a gift.

“The gift is the right to purchase tickets from a pool under terms that guarantee the purchaser successful completion of the transaction at face value when that same right is not available to members of the public,” the board ruled.

Although the board ruling was based on a request from the Hennepin County attorney’s office and focused on the role of Hennepin County officials, the decision presumably encompasses state and local government officials as well.

The ruling apparently has required the Twins to make some exemptions to its own policies. Typically, participants in ceremonies either are given or purchase tickets because all who enter the stadium on game day are required to have a ticket.

In this case, the board ruled that Hennepin County public officials will have the right to receive a credential to enter the ballpark, but after they’ve done their pre-game bit, they’re out of luck when it comes to sitting down.

“Presumably, the Hennepin County officials who are to participate in opening ceremonies could be credentialed in a way to allow them into the stadium for the ceremony without the need for a ticket to stay for the opening day game. … It is clear that the formal official ceremonies on opening day will occur prior to the baseball game. To the extent that in-game activities in which Hennepin County official participate are undertaken, these activities do not appear to be sufficiently related to the performance of official duties to permit application of the exception.”

What makes all of this an issue is that the game quickly became a sellout. By mid-February, there was no opportunity for the public to purchase tickets, except through “the after-market,” meaning brokerage houses and scalpers.

The board noted that even the least expensive seats at Target Field were available in the “after market” for more than 10 times the face value of the ticket. Therefore, the board said, that if a Hennepin County public official purchased a ticket at face value from the Twins, it would be far less than a ticket available to someone in the public would have to pay.

The ruling apparently does mean that public officials can buy a seat at whatever the “after-market” price dictates on game day.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.