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Avella blows whistle on free US Open tkts

Arthur Ashe Stadium during US Open opening night 2011.
Photo by Christina Santucci
By Phil Corso

For more than 30 years, state and city officials have enjoyed free tickets to the US Open courtesy of the U.S. Tennis Association, but after one northeast Queens lawmaker called foul on the practice, the state Legislature’s Ethics Commission ordered the sports group to revoke the invitations from state officials.

State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) said he always thought it was unethical for the USTA to invite lawmakers to sit in the President’s Box at the Flushing event, fully equipped with an open bar and exceptional views of the game.

And after reaching out to the USTA and the Legislature’s Ethics Commission, the USTA was told to remove the perk.

“I know it is unethical,” Avella said. “They should have known better. This is a major institution.”

Avella said he received an invitation for the first time last year and denied the invitation because he saw it as inappropriate. Upon learning of the Ethics Commission’s decision, the USTA complied and started revoking invitations to state lawmakers, a USTA spokeswoman said.

Since 1978, it has been standard practice for the USTA to send invitations to both state and city lawmakers, the spokeswoman said.

And because of the ruling, now city lawmakers, including City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan), must wait for a decision from the city Conflicts of Interest Board on whether they, too, must decline a free invitation to the event.

“This is a case of everybody here wanting to do the right thing,” the USTA spokeswoman said. “The invitations were made out in good faith based on the USTA’s understanding of what gifts were. If the rules are changing, then we will adapt.”

The USTA said it has not received any negative blowback from elected officials as it works to rescind the US Open invitations.

“If you’re inviting elected officials as public servants to maybe announce the 2012 US Open, then that is one thing,” Avella said. “It is a completely different thing to offer an elected official the opportunity to pick a match and get something for nothing that an average citizen would have to pay for.”

Avella said his office looked into the cost an average tennis fan would pay to receive the same benefits that elected officials were given for free and found it to be roughly $1,000 a person for a standard box.

“They needed to be slapped on the wrist,” Avella said. “It boggles my mind that this was going on in the first place.”

Reach reporter Phil Corso by e-mail at pcorso@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

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