Seven legislators have bought pro sports tickets with campaign funds

State Rep. Larry Miller, D-Memphis, has spent more than $12,000 to buy ticket to professional football and basketball games with campaign funds, reports The Tennessean. That puts him atop a list of seven current or former legislators who used their political accounts to buy tickets to Tennessee Titans or Memphis Grizzlies games — legal under state law, though illegal under the rules for campaigns for the U.S. House and Senate.

Miller and another lawmaker argued they purchased the tickets so they could give them away to constituents. They provide those tickets to constituents as a way to give back to their local communities and supporters, never to influence an election or otherwise curry favor, they said. They were quick to point out they never broke the law.

“It’s within the rules,” Miller said.

…State laws vary on whether candidates can use campaign funds for sporting events. A 2014 analysis from the National Conference of State Legislatures shows that many, if not most, states don’t allow candidates to use campaign funds for personal use. But when it comes to campaign or political activity, most states either allow or don’t clearly address spending excess campaign funds on tickets to games.

…From 2003 to 2015, seven state lawmakers combined to spend more than $30,000 on tickets to Tennessee Titans and Memphis Grizzlies games. Here are the top five:

Rep. Larry Miller, D-Memphis: $12,836.50 ($8,378 on Titans tickets, $4,458.50 on Grizzlies tickets)
Former Rep. Lois DeBerry, D-Memphis: $6,475 on Titans tickets
Former Rep. Ulysses Jones, Jr., D-Memphis: $4,832.60 ($4,557.60 on Grizzlies tickets, $275 on Titans tickets)
(Former) Rep. Mike Turner, D-Nashville: $3,354 on Titans tickets
Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville: $1,685 on Titans tickets

Note: Two others mentioned in the article with no ticket totals are former Sen. Steve Cohen of Memphis, now a U.S. congressman, and state Sen. Reggie Tate, D-Memphis. DeBerry and Jones are deceased, both having died in office.

Armstrong, who is facing a trial on federal tax evasion charges, also reported buying $1,515 worth of University of Tennessee football game tickets in 2013 — not mentioned in the newspaper’s roundup of pro game ticket purchases. Armstrong’s campaign disclosure in 2012 describes the Titans expenditure as “ticket giveaways.”

Regardless of how they get their Titans tickets, legislators attending Nashville home games can attend “tailgate parties” hosted for years by the lobbying firm McMahan Winstead and its clients. In 2014, the firm reported to the Tennessee Ethics Commission hosting seven such events at a cost of about $1,300 each.