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Rays' gifts violate state law
The lawmakers who recently received the new-look jerseys and ball caps must pay for or return them.
By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
Published November 20, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - The owners of the Tampa Bay Rays have stumbled in their attempt to warm up to local lawmakers.
Despite what the Rays have been saying as they dished out jerseys, box seats and other freebies in recent months, the gifts are a violation of state law.
And now lawmakers may be forced to pay it all back.
Lawyers for the House and Senate said Monday that even though the Rays do not employ a lobbyist - as the team has pointed out - lawmakers cannot accept gifts.
That means the customized jerseys and ball caps the team sent out last week must be returned or paid for out of the lawmakers' own pockets.
"I'm shipping it back. I don't need a $100 jersey," said Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, who got a uniform with the new Rays logo on the front and his name and the number "08" on the back.
The Rays said the gesture was part of a broader effort to celebrate the new logo. But Hooper and others now think the team is trying to curry favor as it may seek $60-million in state funding for a waterfront stadium in St. Petersburg.
Other lawmakers were planning on returning the jerseys, while some said they would send the team a check.
Under state law, legislators cannot accept anything from an entity that employs a lobbyist, except flowers and "celebratory" items displayed in the legislative chambers on the first day of the regular session in March. The Rays have not had a lobbyist since February, but lawyers for the House and Senate note that state law defines a lobbyist as anyone who worked for compensation during "the preceding 12 months."
Without that provision, any group could simply drop its lobbyist when convenient and avoid a prohibition on gifts.
Rays spokesman Rick Vaughn said Monday that the team would not have additional comment. On Friday, Vaughn said lawmakers were given jerseys "because our understanding of the law is that they can accept them."
The legislative lawyers, Steve Kahn and Jeremiah Hawkes, say lawmakers must pay full retail, not the $43 that the Rays said they paid for the jerseys. A custom replica jersey on the team's Web site goes for $99.99.
The Rays appear to have run afoul of the state's gift ban in other ways.
This spring, legislators and their staff were invited to the Rays' practice facility in St. Petersburg for breakfast, a tour of the park and visits from players and officials, including former slugger Fred McGriff.
In May, a number of legislators - it was not clear Monday how many - sat in an executive box at Tropicana Field for a game against the Detroit Tigers. Legislative aides were given seats in the stands.
"I asked, 'Why are we being invited?' and they said 'We've never really reached out to anybody,'" Hooper recalled.
He said a team representative said it was okay to accept the tickets because the team did not have a lobbyist. It is not clear why the Rays got rid of their lobbyist in February. The team is planning on hiring one for the upcoming year. "They said, 'There's no motive,'" Hooper said. "I can only assume now it was an effort to create warm and fuzzy feelings."
Hooper's office has called the Rays to find out the cost of those seats.
Some lawmakers were also invited to the Rays' unveiling of their new logo earlier this month, then asked to go over to St. Petersburg's Renaissance Vinoy Resort for food and drinks.
Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, said he is sending back his jersey and two hats. He said any effort by the team to secure state funding for a stadium is destined to fail. "If they were hoping we would go out all-bore," he said, "this is the wrong time and the wrong (economic) climate."