San Antonio Express-News & Houston Chronicle
AUSTIN — When the cornerman for boxer Carlos Molina famously jumped into the ring a bit too early for the referee’s liking during a 2012 fight at Reliant Arena, prompting the winning Molina’s disqualification and thunderous boos from the packed crowd — few spectators had a better view than a trio of state lawmakers.
Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, along with then-lawmakers Mike “Tuffy” Hamilton, R-Mauriceville, and Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, had free ringside seats courtesy of the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation.
They were part of a long line of lawmakers, agency employees and other guests who for years have enjoyed free “technical zone” passes at boxing matches and other combative sporting events.
Now, after facing questions about the ethics of the free passes at a Senate Finance Committee hearing, the agency is quietly ending the practice of giving those passes away.
The move will end a decades-old rule of giveaways for fights such as the 2012 Golden Boy event featuring junior middleweight James Kirkland vs. Carlos Molina and the 2013 battle between Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Austin Trout that cemented Alvarez’s Super Welterweight crown, at the Alamodome, among others.
More than three dozen legislators have been invited to sit in the premiere seats at various boxing matches and UFC events since 2012, according to records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the San Antonio Express-News.
Among those who were invited were current and former members of the House Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee, including Thompson and Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, who currently sits on the oversight panel. Gutierrez attended at least two boxing events, including the Alvarez-Trout fight.
Thompson was unavailable for comment. A spokeswoman for Gutierrez said he would support any changes the agency makes.
Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, said a state agency giving freebies to lawmakers who were overseeing them creates a huge conflict of interest.
“The ringside seat is not the view legislators need to oversee the agency,” McDonald said.
Normally, when lawmakers receive tickets to sporting events, such as basketball and football games, lobbyists are required to report the gifts to the Texas Ethics Commission. In the case of this state agency, there is no public trail because it is not required to report it.
“This goes under the radar,” McDonald said. “There’s an issue of transparency as well as conflict.”
But many lawmakers who have been invited to sit in the ringside seats believe that there is no conflict of interest when voting on bills that deal with the agency. They said it gives them the opportunity to understand how the agency is run.
Former Reps. Eiland and Hamilton, who both attended the Kirkland vs. Molina match, agreed that it was a learning experience.
Hamilton, who was the chairman of the Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee, said he was not just there to watch a boxing match.
“It was purely a fact-finding mission to see what was going on,” Hamilton said.
The agency’s executive director, William Kuntz, sent out a memo restricting who could sit in the seats after the issue was brought to light by Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, at a Senate Finance panel hearing in February.
Effective immediately, TDLR employees assigned to work events will no longer be allowed to bring guests into the area close to the ring.
Taylor said the issue was brought to his attention by various promoters of combative sports who were unhappy that they had to provide front-row seats for agency guests.
“Frankly, I don’t think it looks good for Texas,” Taylor said. “The promoters were certainly not happy about it.”
According to Kuntz, the agency has been inviting guests to sit in the seats since well before he was hired as executive director in 1999.
Kuntz said he immediately made changes to the policy when Taylor voiced his concern in the Senate hearing.
“As agency director, I’m responsive to the indications or the directions I’m receiving from the Legislature,” Kuntz said.
After the hearing, Taylor authored a provision that was adopted into the agency’s budget that requires the department to submit a quarterly “Combative Sports Attendance Report” to the Legislature.
Taylor said he was not concerned about the ethics of legislators sitting in these seats.
“I just think the idea of an agency requiring (promoters) to give them tickets is what I had a problem with,” Taylor said.
Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, who previously served in the House and was a member of the Licensing and Administrative Procedures Committee in 2009 and 2011, said he also attended one boxing event in Austin when he was on the panel.
Menéndez said he would not normally attend a boxing match, so the ringside seats gave him an opportunity to see how the state licenses the fights.
“I think the only way sometimes to judge things is to see them for yourself,” he said.
Although the committee often oversees bills that have to do with the agency, Menéndez said sitting in the seats did not influence him one way or the other when it came to voting on policy changes.
The department filed proposed rules with the Texas Register, which will be published April 24 for a 30-day public comment period.
The updated rules would remove the requirement that forces promoters to provide seating near the ring and would also end the practice of allowing guests in the front-row seats.
After the public comment period, the rules will be eligible to be voted on by TDLR commissioners.