MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

Local News

February 28, 2013

Local sales of Thunder tickets draw scrutiny

Civic Center manager's actions questioned

— A program offering sales of Oklahoma City Thunder tickets at the Muskogee Civic Center proved successful for many, problematic for some and questionable for others.

Civic Center Manager Cassandra Gaines announced in November that tickets for seven Thunder home games would be available at the Civic Center. She said the program was designed to promote and market the Civic Center and to make purchases convenient for area residents. Hundreds of people jumped at the chance.

But tickets became scarce for high-profile games such as the one between the Thunder and the Miami Heat, which were opponents in the 2012 NBA title series. The sold-out game left buyers without tickets and Gaines, who said she was buying and reselling seats through the Thunder’s group sales program, holding the bag.

Vicki Garrison, one of 10 people who had purchased tickets for the Thunder-Heat match-up but left empty-handed, said efforts to get a refund turned up a couple of troubling questions. First, she said, was a response from Thunder executives that the Muskogee Civic Center lacked the authority to “publicly resell Thunder tickets.”

Dan Mahoney, the NBA franchise’s vice president of corporate communications and community relations, said there are two recommended ways to buy Thunder tickets: through Ticketmaster, with which the team has a contract, and the NBA-sanctioned Resale Marketplace, an online site that offers a venue for holders of season tickets to sell unused tickets.

Mahoney said later that group purchases of 15 or more seats could be made through the Thunder’s corporate offices in Oklahoma City. If Gaines purchased tickets through the franchise’s group sales division, Mahoney said, she can resell those tickets without impedance.

Gaines said every person who bought tickets through her at the Civic Center was told that all purchases were subject to availability.

The second problem that raised suspicions for Garrison — and subsequently for city administrators — was the manner in which the $1,005 refund was made to the group of which Garrison was a part. Gaines refunded the money with a check from her personal business account.

Both issues raised red flags for city administrators who were confronted this week with information provided by Garrison. One question was whether Gaines used her position with the city for private gain, which she said did not happen. Another involved Gaines’ use of her personal business account for ticket transactions.

City Attorney Roy Tucker said the city charter and state law prohibits public employees “from having a financial interest” in business conducted on behalf of the city without a written disclosure. State law requires that all financial transactions conducted by city officials or employees be funneled through city accounts, he said.

“If she were accepting funds for tickets through the Civic Center and depositing them into a personal business account, we would have a problem with that,” Tucker said. “We will ask for an audit of that account just to make sure everything is on the up and up.”

Gaines said ticket sales for Thunder games from the Civic Center produced no profits for herself or the city. She said she offered the opportunity only for convenience for area residents and marketing of the Civic Center.

“These ticket sales were made straight across with nobody making any money off this,” she said. “They (buyers) paid the same amount I paid for them. When the money is deducted from the account, it is deducted by the NBA. If they (buyers) didn’t get tickets, I would give them back their money from the same account.”

Gaines said she recognized in hindsight that the transactions should have been handled differently, but she has nothing to hide. She said the idea for the ticket sales was spurred by her desire to promote Muskogee tourism and “trying to open up the doors and make it happen for us.”

A small sampling of those who bought Thunder tickets this year through the Civic Center said they would do so again if the opportunity arises. Muskogee physician David Wayman said ticket prices were “much better than I could have gotten myself,” and “they were excellent seats.” Stephen Smalley, a local insurance agent who bought tickets for two games, said he would much rather buy locally and believed the deal was better than he could have gotten elsewhere.

Gaines said other ticket buyers came from as far away as Van Buren, Ark. Those people made other purchases here, and Gaines believes Muskogee benefited from the exposure.

Gaines said she plans to continue building the city’s relationship with the Thunder executives and hopes to be able to provide local opportunities to attend Thunder games next year.

City Manager Greg Buckley said that although the program may have hit a few snags this year, he believes expanding opportunities at the Civic Center through cooperative ventures with organizations such as the Thunder benefits Muskogee.

“If we can promote getting people to the Civic Center, and ... that is what we were trying to do with the Thunder, that is a positive step forward,” Buckley said, citing the appearance of the Thunder cheerleaders a year or so ago at the Civic Center as an example. “Did all the pieces work? Some of them did. But running money through a personal account probably was not the right thing to do, but it was done for the right reasons.”

Buckley said lessons were learned. If the opportunity arises next year to sell tickets to Thunder home games, procedures would be put in place “to do it differently,” he said. Tucker said any future program would “depend on whether we can secure permission from the Thunder.”

“Obviously, they need to be authorized,” Tucker said of Thunder ticket sales. “If that is the case, we just need to make sure funds are going through city accounts and we have guidelines for ticket sales and refunds.”

Mahoney said the concern for Thunder executives is for the public to know that the Civic Center is not “considered a broker for Thunder tickets.”

“We understand there is a demand for tickets ... and when there is this much demand there is a danger of not getting what you think you are buying,” he said. “Go through the Thunder website first, and if there are sold-out games go through the Resale Marketplace.”

Reach D.E. Smoot at (918) 684-2901 or dsmoot@muskogeephoenix.com.

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