Sen. Ted Cruz stood courtside, gleefully grinning during pregame on the night the Houston Rockets were bounced from the 2018 NBA playoffs in a devastating Game 7 Western Conference finals home loss to the Golden State Warriors, a marquee matchup the Texas Republican was able to watch for free thanks to a powerful Republican donor.
Cruz attended the May 28, 2018, game with a ticket gifted to him by Robert Marling, the CEO of Woodforest National Bank and a financial supporter who contributed to his Senate and presidential campaigns.
Marling has contributed to many other Republicans, including President Donald Trump, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and Alabama judge Roy Moore, who lost a 2017 special Senate election that was derailed by allegations of his sexual misconduct with underage girls.
The ticket cost $5,175, according to Cruz’s financial disclosure form filed on Aug. 12.
The Senate Ethics Committee general gift rule follows that: “A Member, officer, or employee may accept a gift, other than cash or cash equivalent, having a value of less than $50, provided that the source of the gift is not a registered lobbyist, foreign agent, or private entity that retains or employs such individuals. The cumulative value of gifts that may be accepted from any one source in a calendar year must be less than $100.”
But the Game 7 ticket — and others he received as gifts in 2018 — did not violate any ethics rules. The Senate Ethics Committee holds that members are allowed to accept gifts on the basis of a personal friendship and must receive written approval from the panel for gifts in excess of $250. The Ethics Committee did not immediately answer whether Cruz got written permission to accept the ticket.
“Sen. Cruz filed his required ethics disclosure in accordance with all applicable rules and guidance from the Senate Ethics Committee,” Cruz spokeswoman Lauren Aronson said in an emailed statement.
Daniel Weiner, a senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, which describes itself as a nonpartisan law and policy institute, said the gifts do not necessarily constitute any wrongdoing. But Weiner noted that the exemption for personal friendship leaves room for interpretation.
“Personal friendship is a pretty subjective concept, and there is frequently a question about whether a gift was actually based on friendships versus a desire to curry favor,” Weiner said.
Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for the liberal group Public Citizen, said he finds the gifts unethical.
“The Senate Ethics Committee should never have issued a waiver for something this expensive,” he said.
“Buying tickets to sporting events provides the person who gave the gift with special access to the lawmaker that nobody else has,” Holman added. “This provides them with the means of extraordinary influence peddling.”
Cruz tweeted a photo of him while the Rockets were putting up pregame shots on May 28, 2018, that read: “Minutes before tipoff…. @HoustonRockets #ClutchCity GO ROCKETS!!!!”
Houston ended up losing 101-92 and shot horrifically from beyond the arc, missing 37 3-pointers. The team was also without their point guard, Chris Paul, due to a hamstring injury.
Cruz tweeted near the conclusion of the contest: “8 min 27 seconds to go. Rockets — it’s now or never. Houston is #ClutchCity It’s Q4: get ‘er done. GO ROCKETS!!!!!”
Some on Twitter blamed Cruz for the Rockets’ loss, and some used the hashtag #CruzCurse to criticize Texas’ junior senator.
But Cruz wasn’t necessarily bad luck for the Rockets, despite the Game 7 loss last year. He received Rockets tickets as gifts two other times over the course of 2018, and the team won both those games. The total value of the tickets for all three games was $12,763.
Cruz was at the Western Conference finals Game 5 win over the Warriors on May 24, with the tickets valued at $5,000. Jeff Roe, a Republican political consultant who managed Cruz’s 2016 presidential run, gave him those tickets.
Cruz also received tickets from Marling for the Rockets’ win over the Los Angeles Lakers on Dec. 13. Those tickets were valued at $2,588.
Roe had no comment on the gift. Marling’s bank did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment.