An investigation that revealed disturbing levels of corruption at the Fiesta Bowl entangled prominent Arizona political figures, who were provided free tickets to sporting events, flown to costly junkets and given questionable campaign donations from bowl employees.
The scathing 276-page investigative report commissioned by the Fiesta Bowl showed how lawmakers received handsome perks from the organization, namely in the form of free trips to college football games across the country. They saw games involving big-time college programs such as Michigan, USC, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Navy, and also received free tickets to the Fiesta Bowl.
Senate President Russell Pearce was a big recipient of the tickets and campaign donations from Fiesta Bowl employees, and his name is mentioned dozens of times in the report. Pearce, a veteran lawmaker who has drawn national prominence for sponsoring legislation against illegal immigration, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
The Mesa Republican, Gov. Jan Brewer and U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl were in a bipartisan array of 23 federal, state and local candidates who the report said received contributions totaling at least $46,539 since 2002. The report said the bowl-affiliated donors were then illegally reimbursed for the donations by the bowl.
However, there was no indication that any of the politicians who received the contributions knew of the secret reimbursement arrangement, the report said.
Mary Peters, a former U.S. Transportation secretary who served as co-chair of Brewer’s 2010 election campaign, said Brewer was unaware of any reimbursements for contributions to her.
“She would not associate herself with anything that was illegal or improper in any way,” Peters said. “When donors give these contributions, the campaign has no way of knowing that somebody is going behind their back and doing something illegal.”
The Arizona Attorney General’s Office in 2010 launched an investigation of the alleged reimbursements at the request of state elections officials. The investigation is continuing. The Attorney General’s Office didn’t immediately return a call left Wednesday afternoon.
Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, said so far no complaint has been filed could trigger an ethics investigation, Gould said.
Violations of election law in connection with contribution reimbursements would be committed by those receiving making the reimbursements, not the recipients of the contributions, Gould said.
Arizona law generally bars legislators from accepting admission to sporting or cultural events, gifts worth over $10 or other items intended to influence their official conduct. However, there’s an exception that allows lawmakers to take gifts of admission to “special events” if the offer is made to broad categories of legislators, such as all senators. And they have to report any single gift or group of gifts of $500 or more.
Lobbyists for the Fiesta Bowl reported that the bowl spent more than $78,000 on special events involving lawmakers from 2002 until January 2011, according to state records.
The bowl paid for lawmakers to attend BCS/Fiesta Bowl seminars in Dallas, Boston, Atlanta and Los Angeles over several years. They also paid for tickets to football games, mostly Fiesta Bowl games.
A financial disclosure report by Pearce covering May 2007 through May 2008 shows that Pearce and his wife received Insight Bowl tickets. The value of the tickets wasn’t specified, but they were worth more than $500. One other disclosure report was available for Pearce, and it didn’t list any football tickets or bowl-related activities. Older reports for Pearce were in state archives and weren’t immediately available Wednesday.
The Fiesta Bowl has enjoyed strong support at the Capitol, both because of business leaders’ involvement in its booster ranks and the event’s contribution to the state’s tourism economy.
But the investigation report said now-ousted bowl chief John Junker thought it prudent to cozy up to elected officials.
Since 2002, the Arizona Legislature has handled nine pieces of legislation both small and large that deal with the Fiesta Bowl.
The most significant proposal was a 2002 bill that that would have scuttled construction of a stadium in Glendale that now houses the Fiesta Bowl and Arizona Cardinals and would have asked voters whether to decide to continue building it. That bill was defeated by a Senate committee.
A 2005 bill let sales tax revenue from ticket sales and other transactions be turned over to the NFL for a Super Bowl or to the Fiesta Bowl for a Bowl Championship Series college championship. That bill was sponsored by Pearce, then a state representative, and signed into law by then-Gov. Janet Napolitano.
In 2003, the Fiesta Bowl offered free weekend trips to at least 10 Arizona lawmakers to Chicago and South Bend, Ind., for a seminar and a game between the University of Southern California and Notre Dame. Then-Senate Minority Whip Pete Rios and then-Senate President Ken Bennett said at the time that they would attend the game.
The bowl paid for round-trip tickets for lawmakers and a guest, two nights at a Chicago hotel and a cocktail reception. Lawmakers would have to pick up some meals and the game itself. Bowl officials defended the trip at the time as a chance for lawmakers to see the challenges that the bowl faces.
Besides the junkets and free tickets to the Fiesta Bowl and affiliated sporting events, the efforts disclosed in the report including hosting of catered candidate fundraisers at a Fiesta Bowl museum without charging for the catering or use of the facility.
In another political tentacle of the scandal, the report identified several lobbyists and political consultants who are close associates of Brewer as shepherding the officeholders on the out-of-state trips. The lobbyist-consultants until recently worked as retained lobbyists for the Fiesta Bowl.
The report linked a different Fiesta Bowl lobbyist to the contribution reimbursement arrangement.
Good-government advocates outside the Legislature said they were troubled by the report’s disclosures.
Providing free tips to legislators demonstrates that some lawmakers are beholden to well-heeled donors and not average voters, said Linda Brown, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network and a support of public campaign financing.
“It’s the sort of thing that really upsets voters and makes them cynical about politics,” Brown said. “There’s absolutely no question when you have that kind of personal access, treating people who would never otherwise have access to those kinds of gifts and opportunities, you’re creating a relationship that is going to (create) a quid-pro-quo.”
The House Ethics Committee’s chairman, Rep. Ted Vogt, R-Tucson, said he hasn’t received any complaints that would lead to an ethics probe.
A lawmaker who took a free bowl-paid trip to a 2008 college football game in Boston said he regrets accepting it.
Sen. Rich Crandall, a Mesa Republican who was a representative at the time of the 2008 trip, said he asked about the propriety and that a bowl lobbyist assured him that the arrangement was traditional and proper.
“That was what we were told,” Crandall said. “Of course you look back now — what a naïve move on my part.”
He said the trip didn’t influence his actions as a legislator. “That’s not how it works down here.”
Sen. Linda Lopez, a Tucson Democrat who went on two bowl-paid trips while a state representative, said the trips were worthwhile to help promote the bowl to officials of college football conferences.
However, “had I known then what I know now about all of the other activities that were taking place at the Fiesta Bowl committee, I probably would not have gone,” she said.
Associated Press writer Carmen Castro contributed to this report.