County attorney wants lobbying laws overhauled after Fiesta Bowl scandal

Gary Grado//December 20, 2011

County attorney wants lobbying laws overhauled after Fiesta Bowl scandal

Gary Grado//December 20, 2011

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who is wrapping up an eight-month investigation into the Fiesta Bowl scandal, will ask lawmakers to overhaul the state’s lobbying laws, saying financial reporting requirements are confusing and out of touch with what he believes the public demands of its elected officials.

“If it’s too much of a burden for an elected official to keep the public informed … they shouldn’t be in office,” the county’s top prosecutor told the Arizona Capitol Times. “If you don’t want to do this, then go do something else.”

Montgomery wants either an “outright ban” on gifts or such a low threshold for mandatory reporting that it becomes almost impossible to manipulate the system.

The gift ban is one of several recommendations Montgomery wants the Legislature to pass as a way to bring it in step with public expectations of transparency.

“The reality is our current structure does not meet those expectations,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery is set to unveil the results of his investigation Wednesday. He would not say whether some elected officials involved in the Fiesta Bowl scandal would be charged with crimes.

Other recommendations he wants enacted include:

• Combining the statutes regulating gifts for lawmakers and lobbyists under one title

• Requiring quarterly reporting for lawmakers

• Making intentional violations of reporting laws a felony

• Creating a “reckless” standard that would carry a stiff fine

Montgomery said he has shared his ideas with legislative leaders and the Secretary of State, and everyone he’s spoken with has been receptive.

“No one has taken the position to defend the status quo,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery investigated 28 lawmakers, four other elected officials, a lobbying firm and a lobbyist, and he said the current laws created “significant hurdles in trying to assess criminal liability.”

It is against the law for lawmakers to accept gifts – including game tickets – unless they are offered to the entire Legislature, one of its full chambers, or a committee. Lawmakers also must annually report gifts if they exceed $500.

An internal report conducted by the Fiesta Bowl board of directors and made public in March found that many lawmakers were taken on out-of-state junkets paid for by the bowl and they got free football tickets, but they didn’t reveal the gifts as required by law.

Lawmakers, including former Senate President Russell Pearce, scrambled to pay back the Fiesta Bowl and amend their financial disclosure forms after the report became public.

Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Ron Gould said some lawmakers may have violated state law by improperly accepting free football game tickets, but he refrained from further investigation so as not to interfere in Montgomery’s probe.

Montgomery took over the investigation of the lawmakers on April 28 from Attorney General Tom Horne, who declared a conflict of interest in investigating public officials because some were his clients. Horne continues to investigate other aspects of the scandal and the U.S. Attorney for Arizona is involved in a probe.

Montgomery said the recommendations are meant to address the public’s need to know whether there is any undue influence occurring.

“The reality is our current structure does not meet those expectations,” he said.

Montgomery said he wants to see one title governing the gift-giving to lawmakers and lobbyists conduct because the statutes from the separate titles too often intertwine and cause confusion.

He also wants to see quarterly reporting for lawmakers to eliminate issues that come from annual reporting such as poor record keeping, bad memory and accuracy. Lobbyists already report quarterly.

He said the reporting should also be web-based so elected officials can log on anywhere to report and the public can easily see.

Right now, it is only a misdemeanor to intentionally violate reporting requirements, so he wants to see it become a felony and a stiff fine to eliminate lazy record keepers, he said.

The Fiesta Bowl scandal can be traced to December 2009 when the Arizona Republic first reported that bowl employees were reimbursed for making campaign contributions.

The bowl’s internal investigation began in December 2010 and found a scheme dating back to 2000 to reimburse employees $46,539 for political contributions. A 276-page report was published in March.

The report also found a conspiracy to conceal the scheme from state officials and the board of directors. The investigation also uncovered lavish spending by former Chief Executive Officer 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 spent at a Phoenix strip club.

On Nov. 16, a federal grand jury returned a 9-count indictment against Natalie Wisneski, 47, the bowl’s former chief operating officer, on charges of filing false income tax returns for the bowl game.

The indictment alleged that she twice signed tax returns for the bowl, a non-profit organization, stating it did not give political contributions or pay for lobbyists. It is illegal for tax-exempt organizations to do either.

The indictment also alleges she collected political donations from employees and paid them back with checks from Fiesta Bowl accounts.

Wisneski quit her job in March just as chief executive officer John Junker was fired.

Former University of Arizona President Robert Shelton took over Junker’s position in June.

The bowl managed to maintain its place in the Bowl Championship Series rotation, where four bowls take turns hosting the annual national college football championship game. But the BCS fined the bowl $1 million and gave the money to charity, while the NCAA put placed it on one year probation.