The Fiesta Bowl is seeking the return of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions made to U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl and other Arizona politicians, according to documents obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.
Bowl employees and their families made the contributions between 2000 and 2009, and were then reimbursed by the bowl. In all, the bowl wants $48,225.17 returned.
The documents from the bowl showed that the money was given to nearly two dozen other Arizona politicians. McCain received, by far, the most cash: $19,500 was given to three of his campaign accounts.
There was no indication the politicians knew the money they received was in fact coming from the bowl, a non-profit that is barred from making political donations.
A spokesman for Kyl did not immediately return calls and emails seeking comment. The senator from Arizona received $3,000 in bowl donations.
McCain’s office said in a statement that neither he nor his staff was aware of any alleged reimbursements.
It said the money would be donated to Arizona charities.
In a letter sent to Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, Fiesta Bowl attorney Nathan Hochman said the tax-exempt organization was required to try to recover the money under state and federal laws. The letter said recovered money would be donated to youth or education in Arizona.
Hochman acknowledged to the AP that it may be difficult to get the money back because some campaigns may not have the funds. Also, at least one of the politicians, former state lawmaker Jake Flake, has since died.
“If we don’t succeed, we don’t succeed, but it won’t be for a lack of effort,” Hochman said.
A recent internal report by the Fiesta Bowl detailed reimbursements to employees for political donations in apparent violation of federal and state laws, plus thousands of dollars in inappropriate spending. The bowl fired longtime president and CEO John Junker.
It put the bowl’s NCAA license and status in the national championship rotation in jeopardy. But it has emerged with its role as host every four years apparently intact.
The Bowl Championship Series fined the Fiesta Bowl $1 million last week, and on Tuesday, the NCAA placed it on probation for a year. The efforts to reclaim the money were part of the ongoing effort to fully reform the Fiesta Bowl, Hochman added.
Besides McCain and Kyl, former U.S. Reps. J.D. Hayworth and John Shadegg were asked to return campaign funds. All four are Republicans. Former Democratic U.S. Rep. Harry Mitchell was asked to return money he received when he ran for the state senate in 2000.
Other prominent Arizona officials asked to return money from the bowl included state Senate President Russell Pearce, Secretary of State Ken Bennett and Gov. Jan Brewer. All are Republicans.
Brewer campaign spokesman Doug Cole said the Fiesta Bowl’s repayment request was out of line. The bowl is seeking $560 contributed in 2009.
“They’re trying to make their problems someone else’s problems,” he said.
Brewer officially closed her 2010 election campaign in December and returned the remaining $16.37 in public funding to the state.
At this point, “there’s no clear legal path for her to do what they want her to do,” Cole said. “There’s no way for her to raise money. There’s no way to return money because it doesn’t exist.”
The money she received would have been given to Brewer’s 2010 campaign as privately raised “seed money” that candidates are allowed to raise before qualifying for their public funding, Cole said.
Bennett was asked to return $350 from two contributions to his 2002 state Senate campaign. He said he planned to send the bowl “a nice, polite denial saying the (campaign) committee is closed” and that he doesn’t have any campaign money left.
Bennett said he had no intention of using his own money to pay back the allegedly reimbursed contributions. “My campaign didn’t do anything wrong when it accepted the contributions from the two guys. The illegal act was when the Fiesta Bowl … reimbursed their own employees,” he said.
Ironically, it was Bennett’s office that investigated an allegation of contribution reimbursements and forwarded it to the state Attorney General’s Office after an initial investigation found incriminating evidence in bowl records.
Todd Lang, executive director of Arizona’s public finance director, said the only repayment option for candidates might be to use their own money to reimburse the Fiesta Bowl.
“The money is long gone. The only way that I could see her doing this is if she pays out of personal money,” Lang said of Brewer.
Lang said his agency was not planning to take action. “Not unless there’s some indication that the candidates were aware of the scheme,” he said.
The Fiesta Bowl also was preparing to send bills to lawmakers who accepted free trips and football game tickets. Arizona legislators can accept gifts of travel from lobbyists and their employers, and, in limited circumstances, tickets to entertainment events. They must report trips as gifts.
Brewer said earlier Tuesday that state lawmakers should clarify state laws governing gifts to public officials in light of the Fiesta Bowl scandal, but added there are legitimate grounds for officials to accept gifts of travel and token items of appreciation.
Sponsored travel is appropriate when officials are representing the state and “sometimes bringing business back,” Brewer said.