GOP senators skittish about Fiesta Bowl reforms
Published: April 9, 2012 at 9:10 am
A year after a scandal involving gifts and out-of-state trips to sporting events rocked the state Capitol, no legislation has advanced to tackle the subject and a Phoenix Democrat said he believes his colleagues are deliberately avoiding it.
Opportunities came twice for Sen. Steve Gallardo to force a discussion on the Fiesta Bowl scandal — and quickly evaporated each time.
“There’s not an appetite for any type of lobbyist reform. You have quite a few members who look forward to some of these special events, to some of these freebies, and I don’t think that they want to go on record as voting ‘no’,” he said. “They’re not interested in putting anyone on the spot in an election year.”
Gallardo waited patiently to offer amendments that mirrored legislation he earlier introduced to crack down on gifts to lawmakers.
He was prepared to go one step further — to train the spotlight on his colleagues by asking for roll call votes on each of his amendments.
But at the last minute, Senate leaders pulled the bill from the debate calendar.
Senate leaders denied that the decision was a preemptive strike against Gallardo’s efforts to compel a discussion on the Fiesta Bowl scandal.
But the Democrat’s unsuccessful tactic to compel a debate on the issue foreshadows the likely defeat of proposals aimed at tightening the laws to avoid another Fiesta Bowl scandal, or more ambitiously, at ending the longstanding practice of gift-giving by lobbyists to lawmakers.
For some, it also reaffirms the difficulty some legislators encounter at letting go of one of the perks of the job — getting freebies from folks who are affected by, and sometimes benefit from, the laws they make.
Still others, including defenders of the status quo, argue that the state’s lobbying and reporting laws are already among the most stringent in the country. The Fiesta Bowl scandal isn’t a testament to the failure of those laws — but the inability of public officials to abide by them.
They describe proposals to add more laws, such as more disclosures, as an overreaction that won’t solve the problem.
They also say the issue is more nuanced than the public realizes, and there are easily provable benefits to allowing lobbyists or interest groups to pay, for example, for a lawmaker’s trip to a conference where they learn from each other and what other states are doing.
Finally, they scoff at the idea that small gifts can buy influence at the state Capitol.
• • •
The Fiesta Bowl scandal shined a bright light on the practice of showering lawmakers and their families with lavish gifts, and how inadequate existing laws are in holding them accountable.
A year hence, it appears the Legislature is content to do nothing.
Measures introduced to deal with the scandal have quietly died.
In the Senate, those measures were assigned to the Rules Committee, where they never saw the light of day.
They didn’t fare any better in the House, where even a senior Republican’s bill didn’t get out of committee.
Senate President Steve Pierce didn’t sound enthusiastic about tackling the issue.
“We may still do something after the budget. We’re looking at options right now,” he said.
The Legislature usually ends the session immediately after a final spending plan is in place.
Even Sen. Jerry Lewis, who made gift-giving to lawmakers a central issue during his campaign against former Senate President Russell Pearce, is resigned to seeing a bill die that he introduced on gifts.
Pearce received the most in freebies from the Fiesta Bowl.
Lewis said he and others who were working on the issue ran out of time and decided to revisit it in the summer rather than push for a “knee- jerk” solution.
“There’s one thing I knew going in here but it’s certainly been
proven: There is no easy answer,” he said.
House Majority Leader Steve Court said his efforts to work on the issue at the leadership level were met with resistance from the Senate.
“They were concerned that, if we brought a bill forward, it could be Republicans or Democrats offering some pretty heavy amendments to it that others wouldn’t want to see,” he said.
He said the ideas that Gallardo proposed would qualify as “heavy amendments,” and have some in the Senate on edge.
“We’re still working on it. It’s not dead yet — but it’s on life support,” Court said.
At one point, Gallardo had prepared six amendments to deal with what he perceives to be an all-too-cozy relationship between lobbyists and policymakers.
The amendments would have prohibited bundling campaign contributions by lobbyists, banned lunches on the House and Senate lawns, and prohibited outright campaign contributions from lobbyists to lawmakers and the governor.
Another amendment would have banned entertainment paid for by lobbyists.
• • •
If lawmakers wrap up the session without passing anything to deal with the Fiesta Bowl scandal, it won’t be for a lack of ideas.
Proposals have been introduced to add reporting requirements, ban gifts altogether, or prohibit entertainment paid for by lobbyists.
Lewis’ bill would have redefined a gift as any item that is worth more than $10. It would also have required lobbyists to report their spending on public officers on a daily basis. Lawmakers would also have been mandated to provide a daily report on anything they received from lobbyists.
Another idea was to prohibit lunches on the House and Senate lawns that are sponsored by interest groups, a seemingly cosmetic fix, but something that could have gone a long way in assuaging the public that lawmakers are sensitive to appearance of impropriety.
David Berman, a professor at ASU’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy, said he believes that none of the Fiesta Bowl-related legislation is advancing because lawmakers don’t see anything wrong with the practice of accepting little niceties from people who court their good graces.
“It’s part of the political world that you make friends that way,”
Berman said. “They really don’t see anything particularly wrong in doing it, and they feel offended that people would question their integrity for taking the small favor.
“What’s wrong with it is that the public perceives them as being easily manipulated,” he added.
• • •
One of those who hoped to see the Legislature address the scandal is Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who investigated more than two dozen lawmakers, four other elected officials, a lobbying firm and a lobbyist. He ultimately concluded that current laws created “significant hurdles in trying to assess criminal liability.”
In short, he determined there might have been improprieties by legislators, but he couldn’t prove violations under current laws.
An internal report conducted by the Fiesta Bowl board of directors and made public in early 2011, found that many lawmakers went on out-of- state junkets paid for by the Bowl and they got free football tickets, but they didn’t report the gifts as required by law.
The Bowl’s internal investigation also found a scheme dating back to
2000 in which employees were reimbursed a total of $46,539 for political contributions. It also uncovered lavish spending by former Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker, who dropped $33,000 for a birthday party in Pebble Beach, Calif., $13,000 for a wedding for one of his aides and $1,200 at a Phoenix strip club.
The scandal led to indictments and guilty pleas by the Bowl’s top executives, but no lawmaker faced any charges related to the free trips and tickets they failed to report.
Montgomery suggested an overhaul of the state’s lobbying laws, arguing that financial reporting requirements are confusing and out of touch with what he believes the public demands of its elected officials.
One of his suggestions is to ban gifts outright or to require a very low dollar-amount threshold for reporting them.
He also wanted to clearly define what actually constitutes a “gift.”
He noted that under one title in statutes, lawmakers’ attorneys could say the Fiesta Bowl tickets were not gifts. But another title says they would have qualified as a gift.
He made several other recommendations, such as online and more frequent reporting of gifts.
Finally, he said the Legislature’s attorneys should not be allowed to give advice about interactions with lobbyists.
That’s because once a lawmaker and an attorney discuss how to handle gifts, an attorney-client privilege is created, which creates an impossible hurdle for any investigator who wants to find out what advice was actually given to the lawmakers.
Careful to respect the Legislature’s autonomy, Montgomery said he would be happy to meet with lawmakers to help craft solutions.
Nobody pursued his help.
• • •
While some at the state Capitol passionately believe the Fiesta Bowl scandal warrants a legislative response, others are equally convinced that current laws are working and the moves to change them in the scandal’s wake is an “overreaction.”
Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, a Gilbert Republican who wasn’t embroiled in the Fiesta Bowl scandal, said the state’s disclosure and contribution laws were made very tight after the 1990s bribery scandal, AzScam.
To Farnsworth, Arizona already has one of the most stringent reporting laws in the country and the fact that the Fiesta Bowl scandal came out is evidence of that.
“The laws are not only adequate. They’re very strict,” he said.
“It was (the) non-filing of disclosure. That was the issue. You don’t need another law to say that there has to be a filing for disclosure,”
Current law already forbids lawmakers from accepting gifts, including game tickets, unless they are offered to the entire Legislature, one of its full chambers, or a committee.
Also, lawmakers must annually report gifts if they exceed $500.
Some lawmakers received thousands of dollars in trips and tickets paid for by the Bowl, and scrambled after news of the scandal broke to amend their financial disclosures or to pay back the value of the gifts.
Farnsworth said he believes the issue was blown out of proportion as lawmakers were unfairly tied to the more serious allegations involving the Fiesta Bowl: the scheme of reimbursing employees for campaign contributions.
For Farnsworth, that’s separate from the issue of lawmakers getting free tickets and trips.
“We had people that didn’t disclose those gifts,” he said, adding that can be remedied not by more laws but by training lawmakers about what’s already required.
• • •
Measures that deal with the Fiesta Bowl scandal may not go anywhere this year, but they have led to some introspection about the boundaries of relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers, and about self-policing.
“I do find it troubling that lawmakers are more than willing to regulate other people, but not themselves,” said Sen. Ron Gould, a Lake Havasu City Republican who introduced a “total gift ban” bill.
“Apparently, they like getting freebies from lobbyists so they aren’t willing to make a rule that prohibits that,” he said, adding that his proposal has been described as a “nuclear option.”
Lobbyists, who spoke on background so they could freely share their thoughts on the subject, said the solutions to the issue are really all-or-nothing propositions.
They said lawmakers could either completely ban gifts, as some have suggested, or allow any kinds of gifts, but require full and strict disclosure, as well as hefty penalties for not reporting.
The latter should lead to self-policing since no lawmaker would risk the perception of being too cozy with or working for lobbyists’
interests rather than their constituents, they said.
But listing what items are considered gifts or putting arbitrary threshold amounts for reporting won’t cut it, one respected lobbyist told the Arizona Capitol Times.
“Anything in between, and you’re making a subjective decision that at some point will be challenged,” he said.
If it’s any comfort to current legislators, the issue of gift-giving and perceptions of impropriety aren’t new.
About a century ago, Arizona’s founding fathers targeted one rampant
abuse: railroad passes for public officials.
Their legacy still exists today — in a not so-very-quoted part of the state Constitution:
“It shall not be lawful for any person holding public office in this state to accept or use a pass or to purchase transportation from any railroad or other corporation, other than as such transportation may be purchased by the general public; Provided, that this shall not apply to members of the national guard of Arizona traveling under orders. The Legislature shall enact laws to enforce this provision.”
— Evan Wyloge and Jim Small contributed to this report.