x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Ticket touts cash in on Obama's swearing-in

Online black market sellers are demanding thousands of dollars for inauguration tickets.

With the White House in the background, workers continue to build the presidential inauguration reviewing stand in Washington.
With the White House in the background, workers continue to build the presidential inauguration reviewing stand in Washington.

WASHINGTON // The eBay seller had two VIP tickets, he claimed, to the January inauguration of Barack Obama. He set a starting bid price of US$5,000 (Dh18,400), for just one of them, but was willing to end the auction immediately for whomever agreed to pay twice that amount and send the money right away. "I have guaranteed access to four and there are two left," the seller, identified as "honjarlan", wrote. "These tickets will come from a source in Congress that will not be able to attend. Do not ask where they are coming from because I will not answer that." Such is one sales pitch among many in the country's newest, and busiest, black market: that for tickets to the swearing-in of the 44th president of the United States. Tickets to the Jan 20 event - which, given its historic nature, could draw a bigger crowd even than the 1.5 million who gathered in 1965 to see Lyndon B Johnson take the oath of office - are distributed, at least officially, by members of Congress. And they come free of charge to those lucky or politically connected enough to secure one. But demand is so great - one Maryland senator has fielded 40,000 requests for tickets, far greater than the few hundred he probably will get to hand out - that various websites and ticket brokers are offering them for a steep price. "Buy great Presidential Inauguration Tickets and enjoy the show! Sold out? So what! Get your Presidential Inauguration Tickets at StubHub today," reads an ad from the online ticket marketplace StubHub, which this week listed several available tickets ranging in price from $1,950 to $7,500 each (the site also listed 1pm as the event's starting time, an hour late). The website inauguraltickets.com had tickets on sale for $1,095 to $2,350. A seller on Craigslist posted an ad offering two tickets for what was billed as a veritable bargain. "These tickets are going on other sites for over $1,500 EACH? will accept 550-800 dollars, make an interesting offer!" There is just one catch: none of the tickets have even been released into circulation. The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which is responsible for planning the inaugural activities at the US Capitol, has warned ticket seekers that anyone taking orders for tickets does not actually have any. And one senator is planning to introduce legislation that would make their sale illegal. In large part to prevent scalping of this sort, the approximately 240,000 tickets printed will not be distributed to congressional offices until much closer to the ceremony date - they are being held in a secure, undisclosed location - and in-person pickup will be required. "Any website or ticket broker claiming that they have inaugural tickets is simply not telling the truth," Howard Gantman, staff director for the inaugural ceremonies committee, said in a recent statement. "We urge the public to view any offers of tickets for sale with great scepticism." Dianne Feinstein, the California senator who serves as the committee's chairwoman, was horrified by reports of tickets being peddled for as much as $40,000. She wrote to online sites including eBay asking that they refuse to post advertisements for the scalped tickets. But she is also readying legislation, she said, that would make it a federal crime for anyone to sell them. "These tickets are given for free to people," Mrs Feinstein told the Associated Press. "This is a major civic event of the time, and no one pays for their tickets and we believe no one should be required to pay for their tickets." The swearing-in ceremony will take place outside, as is the custom, on the west side of the Capitol building, beginning at noon. The tickets distributed by lawmakers are for access to the Capitol grounds and a designated area of the National Mall, the vast parklike space stretching from Capitol Hill to the Washington Monument, near the White House. People without tickets will be able to gather in unrestricted sections of the Mall. Tickets will likewise be distributed for the parade that will take place following the swearing-in, as Mr Obama makes his way down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House for the first time as president. Tickets to the inaugural festivities - including a series of themed inaugural balls - are not the only thing in demand by the throngs of people expected to descend on Washington. So is housing. And with the tens of thousands of hotel rooms in the city all but booked up already - save for some with a price tag that would break most any household budget - many local residents are trying to cash in by renting out their apartments and houses. Inaugurations have not always been such elaborate affairs. In March 1801, the president-elect Thomas Jefferson walked to the Capitol building from a boarding house nearby, where he had been staying, unlike his two predecessors, who had ridden to their ceremonies in a carriage. According to a history provided by the inaugural ceremonies committee, Mr Jefferson had only a few aides with him. He took the oath in the Senate chamber, and spoke to the comparatively small audience gathered there. Then he finished the day with a meal back at the boarding house. eniedowski@thenational.ae