Fiesta Bowl to 31 politicians: We want our money back
by Craig Harris and Ginger Rough - Jun. 28, 2011 01:55 PM
The Arizona Republic
After years of currying favor with elected officials by lavishing them with tens of thousands of dollars in expensive gifts, including out-of-state trips and tickets to sporting events, the Fiesta Bowl now wants the money back.
The bowl, which is working with the Internal Revenue Service to keep its non-profit status, is asking 31 politicians to reimburse more than $154,000. The bowl late last week sent each politician an invoice informing them of the money it would like repaid.
The largest bill - $37,930 - went to Senate President Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, who stayed at luxury hotels and took family members with him on bowl-sponsored trips from 2002 to 2009. Pearce, who could not immediately be reached on Tuesday, also had the bowl pick up chauffeured car services for him during a 2006 trip in Chicago, according to the bowl.
Pearce has so far repaid the bowl $1,417 of the $39,347 the bowl spent on him.
It is unclear what legal authority the bowl has to seek reimbursement, or whether any of those from whom it seeks repayment are in any way obligated to repay the money.
The charges on the invoices include trips on which the bowl says it took lawmakers dating back to 2002, and tickets it doled out to the Fiesta Bowl, the Insight Bowl and other sporting events. For example, state Rep. Ben Arredondo, D-Tempe, received tickets to the 2009 Super Bowl between the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers, and to the 2004 Holiday Bowl. The Fiesta Bowl is asking him to repay $13,678.
Arredondo, reached by phone, said he had no comment.
Pearce and Arredondo, a former Tempe City Council member, pushed through public subsidies for the Fiesta Bowl in 2005 at the state Legislature and Tempe City Hall.
Until late last year, the bowl had made it a practice of spending lavishly on politicians in return for help landing subsidies or legislation to benefit the non-profit organization. The bowl changed course after The Arizona Republic in December 2009 first reported that current and former bowl employees said they were reimbursed for making campaign contributions, which is illegal, and cited questionable business practices.
The bowl in late March released findings from an internal investigation that found excessive spending by employees and confirmation of the campaign-contribution reimbursement scheme. The bowl fired John Junker, its longtime chief executive.
Since that report was released, the bowl has tried to recoup the illegal contributions, but has met little success. The bowl has said those funds, in addition to any money repaid for the gifts it dole out over the years, would be given to charities that benefit youth or education in Arizona.
House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, who went to Dallas to see what is known as the "Red River Shootout" - college rivalry game between Texas and Oklahoma - said he received his letter Monday afternoon. He said he thought it was "strange."
The bowl told Tobin it spent $2,824 on him on that trip, and that he has reimbursed the bowl for $90.
"How do you turn around and bill later, after the fact?" Tobin asked. "If you are going to invite people to go, then you should tell them what the bill is, at the time."
Tobin added, "I think, more than anything else, they are trying to protect their tax status. But shifting this problem to lawmakers, who they invited - and whom they called on many occasions to get them to go - it's a bit much."
The invoices were sent to current and former elected officials, and copies were sent to the Arizona Secretary of State's office and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who is looking into whether lawmakers violated any state laws by not reporting the trips and any other gifts received.
The trips were legal under Arizona's lobbying statutes, but must be disclosed if their value exceeds $500.
State law also prohibits lawmakers from accepting free game tickets unless the entire Legislature, an entire chamber or an entire legislative committee is invited.
At least 15 current and former state lawmakers have amended their financial disclosure reports to reflect gifts received from the bowl since it released it damaging internal report in March.
In a letter to Secretary of State Ken Bennett, who went on two Fiesta Bowl trips when he served in the Arizona Senate, bowl attorney Nathan Hochman said the bowl is seeking reimbursement because the gifts it gave to lawmakers may not be appropriate given the bowl's mission.
"As a tax exempt, non-profit organization, the Fiesta Bowl strives to promote volunteerism, athletic achievement, amateur sports competition and higher education through the hosting of top college football bowl games and related activities," Hochman wrote. "In order to maintain its tax exempt status . . . the Fiesta Bowl must be operated exclusively for these tax exempt purposes."
The letter also notes that "over the past 10 years, you may have received tickets to the Fiesta Bowl, the Insight Bowl, and the BCS National Championship Game."
Letters sent to Bennett asks him to identify the games for which he received tickets, the number of tickets received and any reimbursement payments made to the bowl.
The letter notes that the bowl expended $2,858 on Bennett's behalf, and that he has reimbursed them for $35 worth of expenses.
Bennett was in a training conference and could not immediately be reached for comment.
Sen. John McComish, R-Phoenix, who went on a 2009 trip to Dallas, said Tuesday that he had not yet received his letter and invoice.
McComish said he has no intention of repaying the bowl more than $2,600 - the balance bowl officials say he owes for expenses incurred on the trip. McComish has already reimbursed the bowl $206 for game tickets.
"No, that's my simple answer," McComish said Tuesday when asked if was paying the difference. "We thought we were doing them a favor. I thought I was on a business trip to help them out."
Tempe Center for the Arts
Tempe Cesspool for the Arts