Fiesta Bowl scandal spurs gift ban proposals
Published: January 26, 2012 at 8:03 am
The Fiesta Bowl scandal has prompted two state lawmakers to plan legislation that would include an outright ban on gifts to legislators.
Laws being drafted separately by Republican Sen. Ron Gould of Lake Havasu City and Democratic Sen. David Schapira of Tempe are a response to last year’s revelations that 28 current or former state lawmakers received free football game tickets and some got all expense-paid trips from the bowl.
Both also would prohibit lobbyists or corporations that hire lobbyists from giving anything of value to lawmakers. Currently, lawmakers generally can’t accept items not provided to the public at large, but can accept food, entertainment, travel or lodging benefits or speaking fees. They don’t have to report gifts costing less than $10, and must disclose gifts from a single source of more than $500.
“People don’t give you gifts just because of your good looks and great speaking ability,” Gould said. “They’re trying to curry favor with you, they’re trying to create a relationship, with the feeling that you’re more apt to support the things that they push because of that relationship.”
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery investigated the lawmakers who took trips or tickets, but decided in December that state reporting laws were so complex and contradictory that he could not bring any criminal charges. He called on the Legislature to overhaul and consolidate reporting and gift laws for lobbyists and elected officials, toughen reporting requirements, ban gifts outright and make some violations a felony.
Schapira serves as Senate minority leader and already has introduced a separate bill prohibiting lobbyists from providing entertainment to legislators.
Both Gould and Schapira said the legislation they are writing would ban lawmakers from taking anything of value from a lobbyist or company, including meals. Neither took tickets or trips.
Gould, who is chairman of the Senate Ethics committee, said he plans on inserting the lobbying restrictions in his gift ban bill, which must be filed by Monday.
Schapira said he didn’t think the existing lobbying entertainment ban was unclear, as Montgomery said when he announced his decision not to pursue charges against lobbyists who provided tickets or the lawmakers who accepted them.
“I thought the law actually was relatively clear, and I’ve been familiar with it since I came to the Legislature, which is why I’ve followed it precisely,” Schapira said. “Just to eliminate any confusion on anyone’s part, I just want a flat-out ban on free entertainment coming from lobbyists or corporate entities that hire lobbyists.”
The proposed laws would end the longtime practice of business groups and other organizations putting up tents on the Capitol grounds and providing lawmakers and their aides with free lunches during the legislative session, prompting Gould to joke that he would not be making any points with the tent crowd.
The county attorney’s probe was prompted by a Fiesta Bowl internal investigation into illegal political contributions and lavish spending by top bowl officials.
A report of that investigation, released in March, listed many current or former lawmakers as recipients of game tickets or free trips. Many failed to report them on their disclosure reports. The Fiesta Bowl asked politicians who cumulatively received more than $161,000 worth of free trips or game tickets to explain how they benefited the tax-exempt group. The bowl implied it may seek repayment if the expenditures can’t be justified.
Some lawmakers sent reimbursement checks to the bowl.
Montgomery took over the case involving the lawmakers after the Arizona Attorney General’s office declared a conflict of interest.
Longtime bowl President and CEO John Junker was fired after the internal investigation, and he and bowl lobbyist Gary Husk remain under investigation by state and federal prosecutors.
The former chief operating officer of the Fiesta Bowl, Natalie Wisneski, was indicted in November by a federal grand jury on charges of filing false income tax returns for the bowl game. She also faces federal campaign finance and conspiracy charges over allegations she solicited campaign contributions from bowl employees for federal, state and local political candidates and arranged for the bowl to repay them.
She has pleaded not guilty, and her lawyer said after a December court appearance that Husk and Junker should be facing charges, not Wisneski.
Many lawmakers were angered they were caught up in the Fiesta Bowl probe, saying they did nothing wrong.
Gould and Schapira both said they thought the bills should receive strong support.
“I can’t really see many people being opposed to the law, to tell you the truth,” Gould said. “It’s election year, I would assume it would be popular with the public. It might be problematic for them to oppose the bill.”
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