Fischer administration reveals ‘cheerleaders’ who received free Derby tickets

The view from Millionaires Row | Photo by Boris Ladwig

The administration of Mayor Greg Fischer has finally released the names of 16 local business leaders who received free Churchill Downs tickets on Kentucky Derby weekend since 2016. The individuals were dubbed “cheerleaders” for the city as the mayor’s economic development team attempted to woo dozens of prospective business clients each year.

The administration said it will continue withholding the names of the prospective businesses that it entertains at taxpayers’ expense on Derby weekend, despite legislation advancing in Metro Council that would force the mayor to release that information within three years.

Fischer and his economic development team at Louisville Forward have in recent years resisted releasing the names of any individuals entertained on “Millionaires Row” at the Derby, citing an exemption in the Kentucky Open Records Act that allows the withholding of information related to potential economic development projects.

Mary Ellen Wiederwohl

Mary Ellen Wiederwohl, the chief of Louisville Forward, also told Metro Council in August that forcing them to release the names of both prospective businesses and city cheerleaders would have a “chilling effect” on their ability to attract both to attend Derby festivities, as such businesses demand confidentiality and don’t want to tip off competitors to their business strategies.

Despite that previous resistance, last month Wiederwohl emailed members of the Government Oversight, Audit and Ethics Committee — which housed the proposed ordinance requiring the mayor to divulge the identities of Derby guests — to reveal the names of what they dub the city’s cheerleaders at the Derby since 2016.

Wiederwohl stated in the email that they had secured the consent of the 15 cheerleaders to disclose their names to the committee, while the sixteenth person had died two years earlier. However, she added that they “continue to believe that the identity of the ‘cheerleaders’ is protected by KRS 61.878(1)(d)” and were not waiving their right to invoke that statute to withhold names in the future.

The so-called cheerleaders since 2016 are below, along with their business and position:

Ankur Gopal, CEO of Interapt
Mike White, CEO of America’s Finest Filter (died in 2016)

Travis Doster, senior director of public relations at Texas Roadhouse
Tony Georges, regional human resources operations manager at UPS
Phil Marshall, CEO of Hosparus Health
Jerry Summers, director of community relations at Beam-Suntory
David Durik, CEO of hellospoke
Eric Friggle, senior manager at Computershare
Debra Hacka, senior manager at Computershare
Andy Eastes, CEO of SkuVault

Tendai Charasika, CEO of SuperFanU
Mark Carter, CEO of Passport Health Plan
Louis R. Straub II, president of Independence Bank
Evon Smith, CEO of OneWest
Brit Fitzpatrick, CEO at HELM (formerly Mentor Me)
Galen Powers, chief technology officer at SIDIS

Derby guests’ campaign contributions

In his re-election campaign this year, Fischer was attacked by his opponent, Republican Councilwoman Angela Leet, for not releasing the names of any guests the city entertained on Derby weekend, even going so far as to suggest that the mayor used these tickets as a way to secure campaign contributions.

However, a review of these 16 individuals’ political contributions shows that these local cheerleaders have collectively given more to Leet than Fischer.

Carter of Passport Health Plan, a guest in 2018, gave $2,000 to Fischer’s first campaign in 2010, but two months before he attended Derby this year, he gave a $500 contribution to Leet.

Durik of hellospoke attended the Derby in 2017. The consistent Republican donor and his wife wound up giving $4,000 to Leet’s campaign this year. 

Ankur Gopal | Courtesy of Interapt

Gopal of Interapt, a guest in 2016, made a $500 contribution to Fischer in March of this year, while Marshall of Hosparus Health, a guest in 2017, gave a total of $1,800 to Fischer in his 2010, 2014 and 2018 campaigns.

Straub of Independence Bank attended the Derby this year, but his only contribution in a mayoral race was to Fischer’s opponent Hal Heiner in 2010. No other “cheerleader” made a contribution in a mayoral race.

It is unknown if any of the other dozens of guests to Derby made political donations, as those identities have not been revealed by the administration.

Council advances ordinance to release names of Derby guests

Despite the administration conceding on the release of the cheerleader names, the Government Oversight, Audit and Ethics Committee voted 5-1 last Tuesday to advance Councilman Brent Ackerson’s proposed ordinance to force the administration to release the names of all Derby guests that the city entertains.

Brent Ackerson

The ordinance would require the mayor to not only release information that Fischer has disclosed in recent years — such as the amount spent on the Derby guests — but the names of the city’s invited cheerleaders and prospective business clients.

However, acknowledging concerns about confidentiality and potential damage to the city’s ability to land development projects, the ordinance only requires the mayor to release the names of those prospective business guests after three years.

In a letter to the committee last Friday, Wiederwohl noted her disappointment that Louisville Forward “was not afforded the opportunity to speak” at Tuesday’s hearing and then reiterated her points about the damage that would be caused if the administration was forced to reveal the identity of their Derby guests at any point in time.

Noting that confidentiality is important to companies and some projects take more than three years to finalize, Wiederwohl wrote that “any disclosure of a company’s visit to Louisville at any time would be injurious to the relationship and the ability to attract new jobs.”

Again referring to the “disruptive and chilling effect” the ordinance would have on their ability to effectively recruit companies and jobs, Wiederwohl wrote that these new provisions would cause companies to decline their Derby invite, thus “slaughtering” the “golden goose” that is unique to Louisville.

“If this ordinance is passed, the practical effect will be that there will be nothing to report because no company with an economic development project is going to agree to attend such an event under this set of circumstances, and Louisville will have lost one of its strongest tools to attract a business unfamiliar with Kentucky to come to the state and get a favorable first impression,” Wiederwohl wrote.

The proposed ordinance will be voted on by the full Metro Council at their meeting on Thursday.

According to city records, the Fischer administration has spent nearly $400,000 entertaining guests on Derby weekend over the last four years, including nearly $110,000 in 2018 — mostly comprised of the $72,441 spent on 32 “Millionaire’s Row” tickets for each of the two race days at Churchill Downs.

The Fischer administration has also been criticized for its lack of transparency on their proposal submitted to Amazon for the company’s new headquarters. A judge ruled in September that his administration must release the proposal, but Fischer is appealing the ruling.

Fischer has stated repeatedly that releasing such economic development proposals and the names of their Derby guests would put the city at a “competitive disadvantage” with other peer cities in the region, saying this would amount to “business malpractice” and be “really stupid.”

Nashville released most of their Amazon HQ2 proposal in November.