A ticket broker provides a rare glimpse into a murky world, describing how some officials may have fueled a thriving black market that pushed up prices.
In the worldwide scramble for Olympic tickets, the International Olympic Committee strictly prohibits countries and their agents from reselling tickets on the black market. But a U.S. ticket broker says he bought thousands of tickets from two dealers who claimed to have a pipeline to European Olympic officials.
In an interview with The Seattle Times, Gene Hammett, who owns Action Seating in Suwanee, Ga., said he purchased and resold thousands of tickets for the 2008 Beijing Games from a father and son with Hungarian connections — and recently paid one of them nearly $3 million for tickets to the Vancouver Winter Games, which come to a close Sunday.
But the 17,000 Vancouver tickets Hammett expected to sell to fans and other brokers never materialized. The failed deal created a frenzy just days before the Games began, as scalpers scrambled to find new suppliers for thousands of tickets they owed to fans.
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Now, as some fans still search for the Games’ last and hottest sporting-event ticket — Sunday’s gold-medal hockey match — Hammett is stirring up a new storm in the Olympic business world: He has told The Times that the two dealers, Joseph Bunevacz and his 41-year-old son David, both of Southern California, led him to believe the tickets were coming from several National Olympic Committees (NOCs) in Europe and their official ticket agents.
On Friday, after International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials reviewed information provided by The Times, Mark Adams, IOC communications director, said the committee will investigate whether ticketing rules were violated.
Olympic leaders have long suspected that some countries’ Olympic officials and their authorized ticket agencies have sold tickets illicitly. The Olympic movement’s inability to police sales of tickets provided to NOCs — each of which is supposed to dole out tickets only to its own nation’s officials, athletes and fans — has allowed a thriving black market to flourish and push up prices.
If leaders find that NOCs are selling outside of their territories, Adams said, “then the IOC will take action against the relevant NOCs and their agents going forward to future Games.”
Hammett also has met with the U.S. Secret Service, which investigates financial fraud. Agency officials confirmed they talked with him, but wouldn’t say if they are investigating.
Amid the allegations, Vancouver organizers insist they have taken unprecedented steps to stop unauthorized ticket sales.
Hammett’s story — along with documents, tape recordings and e-mail exchanges he has provided The Times — offers a rare look into that murky world.
Businessmen strike a deal in Beijing
On Jan. 15, Hammett sat in his temporary apartment in Vancouver, waiting for a phone call telling him that his tickets had arrived.
The city was abuzz with final preparations for the Games. For Hammett, this would be his biggest deal ever: If he could sell his full order of Olympic tickets — well above face value — he stood to make $1 million.
According to Hammett, he’d already given David Bunevacz more than $2.9 million of his and his customers’ money. And he would hand over another $1 million when the tickets arrived in Vancouver after being collected throughout Europe.
But the phone call — and the tickets — never came.
By then, Hammett was already anxious. After 18 months of calls, negotiations, meetings, e-mails and wire transfers of hundreds of thousands of dollars, Bunevacz had warned him that a problem with his Hong Kong financiers was threatening the deal.
But the 39-year-old Hammett, who’d gotten into ticket resales in high school, believed the Bunevaczes were solid. They were official dealers who sold him tickets at the Beijing Games.
Hammett first met Joseph Bunevacz in the lobby of the Hong Fu hotel in August 2008. Bunevacz said he was based in Budapest with Pegazus Sport Tours, the official ticket agency representing the Hungary and Spain NOCs. David Bunevacz competed internationally as a decathlete.
The two represented themselves as powerful insiders who could easily get $3 million worth of tickets from NOCs. Hammett said he was looking for tickets, and he was led to an office in the hotel.
“There was a big operation, multiple people working,” Hammett said. The staff pulled out thousands of tickets from what they called the vault. “There was more than I’ve ever seen in my life. They had boxes and boxes of tickets.”
Hammett was in business: “I bought as much as I could afford and then resold them to other brokers and then just kept doing that over and over.”
In the end, he said, he bought a couple thousand tickets for $200,000.
Joseph Bunevacz says he did meet Hammett in Beijing, but denies selling any tickets there.
The Times interviewed at least two other people who say they purchased Beijing tickets from Joseph Bunevacz. One was a vendor who purchased a luxury box. Another was David Simon, a former Los Angeles Olympic organizer and now president of the Los Angeles Sports Council, who paid for $25,000 worth of tickets and $95,000 in hotel rooms for the council. Both believed Bunevacz was working for Pegazus Sport Tours.
Ambiguity surrounds Joseph Bunevacz’s role with Pegazus. Bunevacz, his business associates, Olympic officials and representatives of Pegazus describe the relationship differently. Pegazus officials say he does not work for them. David Bunevacz’s role is even more unclear.
In one e-mail, David Bunevacz tells Hammett how they had formed “Pegazus Sport Tours & Marketing Asia” for the Beijing Games, as well as a California company with a similar name, to distance themselves from the official ticket agency, “to safeguard the mother company from deals like this and any deal in the future which happens to be against IOC rules.”
The promise of gold for brokers
On the last day of the Beijing Games, Hammett and the Bunevaczes began negotiations for Vancouver, 17 months away, where an expected record demand for tickets would put more money in play.
In one e-mail exchange, David Bunevacz told Hammett he had been working on contracts for the Games with representatives in Hungary, France, Germany and Italy.
“I would not be entertaining these guys unless I knew it would be worth millions in profit,” Bunevacz wrote. “I don’t mind paying huge kickbacks as long as contracts are signed and goods delivered.”
Bunevacz also wrote that he was negotiating with Hungary and Spain for the 2012 Games in London: “We are getting a head start and are going for a 4-5 million dollar order which means big commissions for the sharks in the NOC’s and they love it since we will advance a few hundred grand this Christmas … “
The Vancouver deal was struck: Hammett would get 17,000 tickets out of the roughly 275,000 tickets available to the general public outside of Canada. But he would have to pay an average 25 percent markup to David Bunevacz.
Bunevacz promised him some of the most coveted seats — including 426 tickets to the men’s gold-medal hockey game and more than 370 to the Opening Ceremony.
“Our current contracts with various NOCs will cover the majority of your ticket request,” according to a September 2008 letter.
As part of the ticket deal, Hammett would have to pay for most of a purported trip for Olympic officials to visit Vancouver and Whistler. That included airfare, hotel suites, meals and spa treatments. According to the $112,000 invoice and letter, NOC officials took the five-day trip in October 2008. The invoice states costs were “courtesy of Pegazus sport tour.”
It’s unclear who might have gone on this VIP trip. Four Seasons staff confirmed that Joseph and David Bunevacz stayed at their hotels in Whistler and Vancouver during that period. The Times couldn’t identify anyone from the Hungarian National Olympic Committee who went on the excursion.
The trip — which was essential to the ticket deal — was to remain secret.
“Please understand that we are dealing with government officials … some may not view this trip as ‘official business,’ it is a delicate situation that takes a lot of patience and understanding as we have done business with most of these people for the past 6 Olympics and would not want unwanted scrutiny to come about because of our relationship,” Bunevacz wrote.
The Bunevaczes’ past
Today, Hammett says he wonders whether there ever were any tickets. He acknowledges the lure of high profits clouded his judgment.
“I fully trusted they were the right people to do the deal,” he said. “It was a leap of faith that came back to burn me.”
Hammett didn’t know about David Bunevacz’s criminal past: In the early 1990s in three separate cases in the Los Angeles area, Bunevacz was convicted of burglary, grand theft and obtaining less than $400 under false pretenses, court officials told The Times. Case files have been destroyed, officials said, but dockets show he was sentenced to a short time in jail and a few years’ probation.
Criminal charges against David Bunevacz also are pending in the Philippines, a Quezon City court official said. Details weren’t available, but the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported that a warrant was issued in 2008 for his arrest, alleging illegal disbursement of funds from a high-end cosmetic surgery and skin institute he and others operated there. Bunevacz had denied the allegations, the Inquirer reported.
In a brief interview with The Times Wednesday, David Bunevacz said no one was defrauded in the ticket deal, and that Hammett hadn’t paid in full.
“The deal went sour,” Bunevacz said, adding that Hammett’s money went straight to owners and suppliers. “No one is running off with money.”
Asked where the 17,000 tickets went, he said, “I had a lot more than 17,000 tickets,” and, “They’re being sold right now to fans.”
He would not comment further or provide any documentation.
He did say he is willing to repay Hammett, but they haven’t settled on how much. Hammett said he faces bankruptcy but hopes to recover the money so he can refund fans.
In a separate interview, Joseph Bunevacz questioned The Times’ focus on his family: “Why are you contacting me? I’m just a little fish, and Hungary is not that big of a country.”
He said he has been in the travel business for more than 35 years, working at a number of Olympics. He said he is an “outside marketing person” for the Hungarian Olympic Committee and is an executive at Pegazus Sport Tours, where he is their “problem solver.”
Pegazus Sport Tours Deputy CEO Balázs Kamuti said the elder Bunevacz has been a “reliable” business partner since the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. But, he said, Bunevacz has used the company’s name improperly in the past and has no relationship with Pegazus now.
“We want to make clear that Pegazus Sport Tours Ltd had never been involved (in) any illegal action, neither now nor in the past,” Kamuti wrote.
Pegazus received 5,500 Vancouver Games tickets for Hungary and Spain, he said.
Zoltán Molnár, secretary general of the Hungarian Olympic Committee, speaking through an interpreter last week in Vancouver, said Joseph Bunevacz, whom he’s met, doesn’t deal directly with the NOC. “We don’t know what kind of ties he has.”
Molnár said that until 2000, Hungary handled its own ticket sales at a “huge loss for the Olympic committee because we don’t have the staff to sell it.”
He said Pegazus pays a flat sponsorship fee to be the exclusive ticket agent. He did not reveal the fee, but said it was a “low-middle-level” sponsor. He said the committee’s overall budget is painfully small: $2 million to $2.5 million, including sponsorships.
Fans and industry hit by fallout
Much of the money Hammett was paying out was collected from his customers, including hundreds of individuals and 20 ticket brokers planning to scalp the tickets.
Mario Livich, CEO of ShowTime Tickets, a major ticket reseller based in Vancouver, considered investing in the Bunevacz deal. Although David Bunevacz told him the tickets were coming from NOCs, Livich said he backed away from the deal because the Bunevaczes wouldn’t put up any hard assets to secure the contract.
Livich said he trusted Hammett, however, and signed a deal with him for about $1 million in tickets: “He’s got a good track record.”
Livich gave Hammett a substantial amount of money as a deposit but received no tickets from him.
“We’ve gone through hell to get tickets from other sources and deliver tickets to customers,” he said. “We’ve had to purchase tickets at inflated prices.”
He’s considering legal action against Hammett.
Bob Bernstein, owner of eSeats.com, an Arizona ticket retailer, already has sued Hammett.
Bernstein said he bought tickets from Hammett for the Beijing Olympics, the Kentucky Derby and the World Cup. But this time he was left with nothing after he paid Hammett more than $400,000 for about 1,200 Vancouver tickets.
Bernstein acknowledges everyone takes a risk by not buying from an official agency: “This isn’t the box office.”
For many Olympics fans, it wasn’t about a business risk; it was about a chance for that once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Cheryl Biederman, 49, of Santa Barbara, Calif., learned shortly before the Games that she wouldn’t get the four figure-skating tickets she’d ordered from eSeats.com, because it hadn’t received them from Hammett.
“Of course I was flipping out,” Biederman recalled. She wasn’t worried about the $1,350 she spent because her credit-card company gave her financial protection. Her bigger concern was being able to see the skating.
She ultimately found tickets on eBay, and Bernstein reimbursed her.
Olympic officials looking at strategies
David Cobb, deputy CEO of the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC), said his organization received no evidence during the Games that any NOC or official agents violated ticket-sales rules. He said VANOC was proactive before the Games, scrutinizing ticket orders for suspicious requests. He said early concerns that tickets would be sold to scalpers led them to reduce a few countries’ ticket allotments. He wouldn’t name the countries.
The NOCs “assumed we’d fill the orders and (they could) pass them on to brokers. They didn’t get the allocation and got stuck breaking those promises,” he said.
As the Vancouver Games draw to a close, and planning is well under way for future games, Cobb said he hopes officials in those venues will adopt similar practices.
Officials of the London 2012 Games say they’re still working on their ticketing strategy.
“We will discuss any learnings from Vancouver with VANOC and the IOC as part of an official post-Games debrief which will bring together experiences from all key audiences,” officials said in a written statement.
Seattle Times reporter Ron Judd and Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.
Christine Willmsen: 206-464-3261 or firstname.lastname@example.org