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Snook says Masters trip was 'above board'

April 16, 1997

By ELLEN LYON

Staff Writer

Three top Washington County officials obtained highly coveted tickets to the Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga., last weekend through the company that invests the Washington County employees' pension fund.

Tickets to the Masters cost $100 each, but are extremely difficult to get. An editor of a golfing publication said word had it that scalpers were getting up to $8,000 for the tickets this year.

County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook, County Administrator Rodney M. Shoop and County Personnel Director Alan Davis reimbursed the investment management company INVESCO $400 each for use of the badges that got them into two days of the four-day tournament and for their food and lodging, INVESCO Global Partner Sam DeKinder said Tuesday.

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The county officials insisted upon reimbursing INVESCO, DeKinder said.

"We considered them our guests," he said. "They are clients of ours. We do this with a number of our clients."

INVESCO, with headquarters in Atlanta, Ga., has had the contract to invest Washington County's $22 million employee pension fund for about two years, Davis said.

The Masters tournament is held at the Augusta National Golf Club and the golf club is the only authorized seller of tickets to a list of ticket holders, tournament spokesman Glenn Greenspan said. The waiting list to become a ticket holder was closed out in 1978, Greenspan said.

The private golf club does not reveal the number of tickets it sells for $100 each, Greenspan said.

To buy tickets "on the up and up is extremely difficult if not impossible," Mike O'Malley, senior editor at Golf Digest, said Tuesday.

In previous years scalpers were selling tickets for about $3,000 but "the word this year is that the price skyrocketed" and scalpers were getting $7,000 or $8,000 per ticket, O'Malley said.

"It's a great deal" to get a ticket for $100, Dave Beegle, the golf pro at Penn National Golf Club in Fayetteville, Pa., said.

Snook said he saw no conflict of interest in attending the tournament through a company that does business with the county, because he paid his way.

"That's the only way I went, that I paid my own way. I didn't get anything for free," he said. "I don't think they truly gave me anything except maybe an invitation to go down (there) ... I feel that I did everything above board."

Snook said that since he paid $100 to see only two days of the tournament when a ticket for all four days cost $100, "I paid more than my fair share."

"We didn't do anything in violation of the (county) ethics ordinance. We paid our own way," Davis said.

Before making the trip, they consulted County Attorney Richard Douglas and he determined that it was not a violation, Davis said.

The Masters Tournament has a lot of mystique about it and is one of the four "major" golf tournaments, along with the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship, Beegle said.

Waiting list

There are rumors that a position on the 20-year-old waiting list to be a ticket holder is passed down in families, Beegle said.

It is common in the South for businesses with access to the much sought-after tickets to take clients to the Masters, DeKinder said.

And while Snook, Shoop and Davis were in Augusta they did discuss business with INVESCO, DeKinder said.

INVESCO's contract with the county is subject to a competitive bidding process and is decided in open session by a majority vote of all five commissioners, Douglas said.

Davis said he thinks INVESCO's contract with the county runs out in the spring of 1998.

Should INVESCO make a bid for another contract it would be handled through the county's purchasing department, Davis said.

Although the County Commissioners have some discretionary powers, they generally must accept the low bid on a contract, Snook said.

While "we would certainly hope they don't dislike us," INVESCO would not expect special treatment, DeKinder said.

"I feel sure that these three men have integrity enough that they won't let it influence them," said County Commissioners Vice President John S. Shank.

Shank said, however, that he doesn't think the trip was a good idea. "Myself, I wouldn't have done that," he said. "I think maybe it wasn't a very good decision on their part, but I feel sure it won't influence their decision-making."

"If I thought this was illegal or immoral or unethical ... or would have brought harm to myself or my family or the county I wouldn't have done it," Shoop said. "I don't believe it represents a conflict."

Snook said the Masters tournament came up about a year ago when he mentioned to some INVESCO officials that he was going to Myrtle Beach, S.C., to play golf.

The officials said they might be able to get tickets to the Masters and then they called some time later and said they had some, Snook recalled.

INVESCO also arranged for Snook, Shoop and Davis to stay in a private home for $50 each a night, Snook said.

The three men shared a room, with Snook sleeping on the bed and Davis and Shoop sleeping on cots, Snook said.

It's not unusual for private homes in Augusta to rent out bedrooms during the tournament, said Debbie Jones, director of the Masters Housing Bureau in Augusta which helps people find rooms.

And $50 a person per night "is definitely an average rate" for such accommodations, Jones said.

Snook, Shoop and Davis said they paid for their airfare to and from Georgia. DeKinder confirmed that INVESCO was not involved in the men's travel arrangements.

Snook estimated that the whole trip cost him about $800 or $900.

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