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California boxing regulators gave free fight tickets to friends, records show

By law, Athletic Commission members are required to report gifts worth $50 or more obtained from an outside firm for anyone else. Only a fraction of the tickets were disclosed before The Times asked.

September 18, 2009|Michael Rothfeld

SACRAMENTO — State officials who regulate boxing have used their positions to gain admission to big-ticket events for friends -- actor Sylvester Stallone among them -- relatives and other associates who sit ringside for free, records show.

One member of the California State Athletic Commission directed state employees to obtain free passes for his wife and pastor. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appointed all but one of the commissioners, attended an event gratis, as did one of his high-ranking aides.

At some fights, guests were placed in VIP rows, in front of fans whose tickets cost hundreds of dollars apiece. Schwarzenegger and his son sat with Stallone at the Antonio Margarito-Shane Mosley welterweight championship bout in January. Tickets to that fight cost up to $300.

Commissioners themselves receive free entry because of their jobs. But Timothy Lueckenhoff, president of the Assn. of Boxing Commissions, a national organization, said asking promoters to admit guests lends the appearance that officials are abusing their regulatory power for personal benefit. The commission can "hold over their head" the ability to approve promoters' fights, license athletes, collect fees and state taxes on ticket sales and pay out winnings, he said.

"It's the appearance of inappropriate activity," Lueckenhoff said. Panel members' acceptance of promoters' largess could suggest that the businesses "are buying some sort of favoritism," he said.

State law requires that commissioners report as gifts anything worth $50 or more obtained from an outside company for anyone else, including friends and relatives. They are required to report their own free admission as well if they do not perform a function related to their jobs while at the event.

But only a fraction of the free entries were disclosed until The Times asked about them. One commissioner did not request admission regularly, the state records show. None responded to requests for comment.

Dave Thornton, the commission's acting executive officer, said that board members were in the process of amending their disclosures before The Times requested the records, and that his predecessor had told them that free admission for guests was "a routine perk of their position."

The revelations are another blow for the commission's parent agency, the California Department of Consumer Affairs, and for Schwarzenegger. He has pledged to make state government more efficient and to impose strict ethical standards, such as a ban he imposed three years ago on gifts to his aides.

Schwarzenegger recently overhauled the state board that monitors registered nurses after The Times and the nonprofit news group ProPublica disclosed major enforcement delays. Before that, the consumer protection agency's director and her boss quit in scandals over taxpayer-funded trips and illegal speaking fees.

On Thursday, as The Times was preparing to publish information on the free admissions, Schwarzenegger sent a letter to the commissioners reiterating that "appointees do not accept gifts" and directing them to follow his policy or resign.

The governor "continues to take aggressive steps to oversee these boards and commissions," Schwarzenegger's spokesman, Matt David, said after the letter went out.

On Aug. 6, Schwarzenegger paid the promoter $180 toward the $600 cost of the fight he attended Jan. 24 with his son, so as not to exceed the state gift limit of $420, David said, and John Cruz, Schwarzenegger's appointments secretary, was planning a similar payment. Such payments are supposed to be made within 30 days under state law.

The 80-year-old athletic commission is responsible for licensing fighters and promoters, safeguarding athletes' health and safety and managing a pension fund for boxers. Its inspectors, referees and other workers travel across California overseeing huge championship bouts, niche shows put on by promoters like Chaos in the Cage and events for select audiences at places such as the Playboy mansion.

The commissioners -- who work part time, earn $100 a day and usually meet monthly -- are Chairman Timothy Noonan, an insurance executive from Los Angeles; Mario Rodriguez, the commission's vice chairman and a business consultant from San Clemente; Howard Rose, a Beverly Hills talent agent; Peter Lopez, an L.A. entertainment lawyer; John Frierson, a former Los Angeles County deputy sheriff; Christopher Giza, a pediatric neurologist from Culver City; and June Collison, a healthcare executive from Etiwanda and a former Olympic runner.

The athletic commission keeps no formal record of the people for whom it obtains access to events that it regulates. In response to a request by The Times in late July, the panel printed a stack of e-mails between commissioners and staff discussing arrangements for events.

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