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Officials invite friends to Rays

The crowd was thin at the Devil Rays game against the Anaheim Angels May 25, but the city's luxury suite at Tropicana Field was full of happy fans.

Although the Rays were losing, those in the city's box were celebrating a victory of another kind: City Council member John Bryan's election to office two months before.

"It was all filled with everybody who had helped with John's campaign," said Nancy Langiotti, who was in the city's luxury suite where Bryan and his wife, Alicia, entertained 17 of their campaign volunteers, contributors and friends. "He just did it as a thank-you, which we all thought was really nice."

It may have been, but it also raises questions about the propriety of an elected official using a taxpayer-supported facility for personal use.

City taxpayers paid more than $170-million to build Tropicana Field, and the city obtained the suite in its lease with the baseball team. The city has 12 suite tickets and 10 field tickets, including four that also allow access to the suite.

City policy is for the tickets to be used to promote the city's economic development initiatives; to recognize the contributions of city board members, neighborhood associations and youth groups; and to recognize and reward city employees.

City records show that Bryan and two other newly elected council members, James Bennett and Richard Kriseman, have hosted campaign contributors.

Kriseman invited his longtime friend and campaign strategist, Lars Hafner, to one game, and Bennett brought his campaign treasurer to another.

But Bryan was the only one who filled the suite with campaign staff, contributors, and even out-of-town friends from Floral City, more than 90 miles north of St. Petersburg in Citrus County. Five of the seven families at the game contributed a combined $825 to his campaign.

The city considers the value of each suite ticket to be $105.

"We're probably the only ones who weren't specifically on his campaign other than for moral support," said Kathy Thrumston, who knows Bryan because they both have homes on a lake in Floral City, and whose husband, John Thrumston, donated $100 to the campaign. "These were all the people who helped him with signs, close friends who were instrumental in helping him with his campaign."

In reporting how he used the May 25 tickets, a city form gave Bryan two choices _ business or personal. He checked business, then listed the names of his guests, noting that they were "volunteers."

Bryan, who recently proposed the city allocate money to provide food and non-alcoholic drinks at the suite, is on vacation and did not return a series of calls in recent days to his home, lake house and city office.

The city's policy says council members, the mayor and other department heads must submit requests for games at the beginning of the season to the City Clerk, who assigns all 81 home games equally. Each council member gets about four or five games. City Clerk Eva Andujar said her predecessor, Jane Brown, arbitrarily assigned each member several games this year.

"Would a City Council member be allowed to take 10 friends?" said City Attorney John Wolfe. "I don't know anything in the policy that prevents it. . . . I think the general idea is you're supposed to use it for city business."

Ben Wilcox, executive director of the government reform group Common Cause Florida, said it appears Bryan was taking advantage of his position.

"It sounds questionable to me," Wilcox said. "This is a facility built with taxpayer dollars. . . . It's kind of like various presidents, whether Clinton or Bush, inviting people to stay at the White House in return for campaign contributions."

Florida Ethics Commission spokeswoman Helen Jones said her office would not investigate unless it received a complaint or request for an opinion.

"The only provision of (state ethics) code that could conceivably apply would be misuse of city resources," she said, adding that the law allows Gov. Jeb Bush to publicly censure an official or impose a civil penalty up to $10,000 for violations. "It would have to be inconsistent in the proper performance of one's public duties."

City policy envisions some personal use of the suite. Employees who use more than $600 in tickets for personal use must declare them a fringe benefit and pay income tax, according to a city memo.

Bennett had the suite the night after Bryan, May 26. His report shows he invited people from the Greater Pinellas Point Civic Association and the Bahama Shores Homeowners Association.

That included his campaign treasurer, David Baras, who is active in the Bahama Shores association. Baras and his wife gave more than $300 to Bennett's campaign. Two other people who gave to Bennett's campaign attended: Chris Gunnarson, who donated $138, and Bonnie Riggens, who donated $372.72.

"He invited people from different neighborhoods that had been helpful in his election," Baras said Monday, adding that he paid for his own concessions. Bennett auctioned off two of the tickets at a Pinellas Point neighborhood association meeting in May, said association board member Bill O'Brien, who won the pair with a bid of $35. The money went to the association's treasury, he said.

Bennett was out of town Monday and could not be reached. His wife, Aimee, said Bennett's May 26 invitations are a part of his plan to host two neighborhood associations at each of his assigned games. He has three more games to go.

He invited people for their neighborhood affiliation, not because of their work on his campaign, Aimee Bennett said.

"The conflict is tough _ 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the volunteering," she said.

Kriseman also was out of town and unreachable. He hosted his campaign strategist and longtime friend, Hafner, a vice president of St. Petersburg College; and an inn owner he has done business with as a lawyer. Both contributed $100 to Kriseman's campaign. At his three games this year, Kriseman has also hosted many not affiliated with his campaign.