Legislators get personal jerseys

The Rays insist the gifts weren't meant to sway officials to back a $60-million stadium subsidy.

Published November 17, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Tampa Bay area lawmakers got a sporty gift late this week from a major player back home: personalized uniform jerseys with legislators' names on the back.

Those lawmakers -- "Fasano," "Justice," "Kriseman" and "Hooper," among others -- may yet decide whether the Tampa Bay Rays get a state subsidy of up to $60-million for a proposed stadium on the St. Petersburg waterfront. Was this an attempt to curry favor with the politicians?

"It's the $60-million jersey," joked Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who got one in the mail Friday.

Fasano was quick to say that he did not think the Rays were trying to butter him up. Others were not so sure.

"What they're trying to do is get attention," said Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, who is skeptical about the need to help the Rays build a stadium. "I love their contribution to the community. But right now we're struggling to meet the basic operations of our state."

The Rays flatly denied any attempt to influence decisions over state funding. Spokesman Rick Vaughn said "hundreds of jerseys" with the team's new logo were given to season ticket holders, sponsors, media and community leaders, "so they could share in the excitement of the launch of the new Rays image.

"Legislators were among them because our understanding of the law is that they can accept them."

The jerseys would be illegal if the team employed a lobbyist, which it does not, though it might in the near future as it pursues a new stadium.

But even though legislators may technically be able to keep the clothing, that doesn't mean state ethics laws don't apply. Custom Rays' jerseys retail for $99.99 on the team's Web site, and elected officials cannot accept any gift if it's worth more than $100.

Vaughn said the jerseys cost the team $43 and caps some lawmakers got were $10.

Fasano said he will send the Rays a check for the jersey. "It would be kind of rude to send it back."

Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, hasn't touched his. "Mine's still hanging in the plastic in my office until I find out if they have a lobbyist or not," he said Friday. As for paying for one, he's not so sure about shelling out up to $100. "I don't want one that bad."

The Rays employed a lobbyist, David Rancourt, until February.

Now they are considering hiring one of the more powerful lobbyists in Tallahassee, Brian Ballard. One of his goals would be helping the team secure $2-million a year from the state over 30 years.

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.