When Gov. Kathy Hochul and her husband attended a highly anticipated, sold-out Buffalo Bills playoff game on a snowy Sunday in late January, they got their tickets from an atypical source: the state of New York.
The Democratic governor and first gentleman Bill Hochul — Buffalo residents and avid Bills fans — sat in a state-controlled indoor suite for the Jan. 22 divisional round game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Highmark Stadium, according to a list of attendees the state recently released. This game marked the first time any governor sat in the state’s suite, officially known as the I Love NY Hospitality Center, according to the annual ticketholder log.
Unlike some states, the governor’s administration does not have access to a suite in major sports stadiums in New York. The lone exception is the Bills’ stadium in suburban Buffalo, where Empire State Development, the state’s economic development arm, receives 16 complimentary tickets and four parking passes to each game as part of the football team’s 2013 lease agreement, which runs for another three seasons.
The Hochuls’ attendance reignited concerns from good-government advocates who have long taken issue with the state’s control of the suite, as well as a separate Hochul-negotiated deal to build a new Bills stadium with significant taxpayer-backed funds.
The suite is meant to promote economic development opportunities in New York, but good-government advocates and some state lawmakers have criticized the arrangement to set aside perks — negotiated by Hochul’s predecessor, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo — as being ripe for abuse.
For the playoff game, the Hochuls were joined by two officials from the governor’s administration, along with Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh, his wife and a bevy of representatives from the semiconductor industry. Among them was Bo Machayo, director of U.S. government and public affairs for Micron Technologies, the Idaho-based company that three months earlier announced it would build a massive $100 billion semiconductor facility in central New York that’s slated to receive up to $6 billion in state tax breaks.
The Hochuls each donated $200 to charity to cover the cost of their tickets, according to the governor’s office.
“The use of the suite helped build relationships between Micron and local stakeholders that will work together to build Micron's presence in Central New York and statewide,” ESD spokesperson Kristin Devoe said in a statement.
State guidelines call for ESD to release a list of people who attend a game in the suite, which it does once a year. The state authority released the list for the most recent season in late April.
Under state law and advisory opinions from various state ethics boards, New York public officials can accept free tickets to a “widely attended” event if the official is performing a “ceremonial function appropriate to his or her position.”
In 2010, the state ethics board fined then-Gov. David Paterson $62,125 for soliciting five World Series tickets from the New York Yankees — and attempting to cover up his tracks — despite performing no ceremonial function at the game.
But the Bills’ suite exists in a gray area. The stadium lease makes clear the suite “shall be reserved for the exclusive use of the State and its invitees,” with 16 tickets provided directly to the state for each event. ESD’s guidelines allow public officials, including the governor, to use the suite so long as they are promoting economic development and pay for their ticket.
The state’s access to the suite won’t last for much longer.
Under a new lease agreement Hochul's administration negotiated with the Bills last year, the state and Erie County will combine efforts to contribute $850 million in taxpayer funds toward a new $1.4 billion stadium. As part of that deal, Erie County — not the state — will control the suite.
The state declined to pursue the use of a suite in the new stadium, according to ESD.
Reinvent Albany, an organization that advocates for government reform, has been highly critical of the new stadium deal, which was the largest taxpayer subsidy for a professional sports facility in the U.S. at the time the state and team struck a tentative agreement last year.
John Kaehny, the group’s executive director, said if the state were prioritizing taxpayers in the deal, the state would own the rights to most seats in the stadium and sell them to recoup its investment.
“Since that's not happening, best is for the state to get rid of the taxpayer funded suites which are ripe for abuse by politicians and the state and local bureaucratic functionaries in charge of giving away public money to corporations and connected businesses,” he said.
The ESD guidelines say the state’s suite in the current stadium is to be used for “encouraging and fostering economic development, tourism, public awareness for the state and western New York, and for other charitable or public functions during events that are scheduled at the stadium.” Political fundraising is specifically prohibited.
The guidelines make clear statewide officials and state lawmakers who attend games are to “pay the value of the cost at the rate charged to the general public for attending such event.”
Figuring out the cost of attendance has proved to be tricky. Suites at the Bills’ stadium are generally leased in full, meaning there aren’t individual tickets sold to the general public.
In 2013, then-Assemblymember James Brennan, a Brooklyn Democrat, issued a report criticizing the suite arrangement. As part of that report, he estimated the value of a single suite ticket to an event had a value of about $500, based on the $125,000 cost of renting a full suite for the year around that time.
Brennan’s report suggested ESD should seek an advisory opinion from the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics to determine how best to determine the cost of a ticket. Emily DeSantis, a spokesperson for the current state ethics board, said the board could not find a record of such a request being made.
Hazel Crampton-Hays, a Hochul spokesperson, said the Bills organization pegged the value of a Jan. 22 ticket at $200. A Bills spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The Hochuls donated their $400 total to the Chasing M’s Foundation, an organization led by Bills safety Damar Hamlin, Crampton-Hays said. Hamlin’s foundation received millions of dollars in donations after he suffered cardiac arrest on the field during a game earlier in the year.
Hochul aide Joan Kesner and ESD CEO Hope Knight also attended the game in the suite. Kesner contributed $200 to FeedMore WNY, according to Crampton-Hays, and Knight contributed $400 to the Partnership Schools, according to Devoe.
The gathering was organized by CenterState CEO, a Syracuse-based business group, whose spokesperson Elle Hanna said it was meant to promote the region as a semiconductor destination.
“If you consider the primary objective of the event to provide the governor of the state of New York and local leaders the opportunity to promote the growing semiconductor industry and create relationships between existing and prospective companies within this sector, all while highlighting the state’s tremendous amenities and high quality of life, then yes it was a complete success,” Hanna said in a statement.
ESD, Erie County and the Bills recently finalized the new stadium's lease agreement after striking a tentative agreement last year.
Hochul had faced criticism for negotiating the new stadium agreement despite her husband working for Delaware North, the Buffalo-based company that provides concessions at the current Bills stadium.
But on Tuesday, the Bills organization told the Buffalo News it would switch concessionaires for the new stadium, spurning Delaware North for Legends, a company partly owned by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and the New York Yankees.