PHOENIX – The Fiesta Bowl has asked 31 Arizona politicians who received free trips or game tickets to explain how they benefited the tax-exempt group, and it said it may ask them to repay the costs if the expenditures can't be justified.
The bowl sent letters this week to the current and former elected officials with a breakdown of what they received. The total was more than $160,000.
Some of the officials have already written checks to the bowl totaling $7,311, but none comes close to what the bowl may seek in repayment. The charitable group said it must try to recover money spent outside of Internal Revenue Service rules so it can maintain its tax-exempt status.
Many of the trips may have legitimate benefits for the bowl, but others may not. The letters are a way of asking the lawmakers to help the scandal-plagued bowl's new legal and executive staff make that determination, the bowl's lawyer said.
The bowl sent a letter outlining its efforts to Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who is investigating whether into whether some lawmakers illegally received game tickets or gifts. The Associated Press obtained copies of that letter and a list of benefits each lawmaker is believed to have received.
Topping the recipients were state Senate President Russell Pearce, a Republican who received more than $39,000 in tickets, trips and other freebies. From 2002 through 2009, Pearce went on VIP trips sponsored by the Fiesta Bowl to games in Denver, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Pasadena, Boston and Dallas. Other top recipients were former Republican lawmaker Robert Blendu with $17,213, and state Sen. Linda Lopez with $16,877.
Pearce didn't immediately return a call to his office seeking comment. But Lopez, a Democrat from Tucson, questioned why she should have to explain to the Fiesta Bowl why she went along.
"They asked me. They told me it was important for me to be there," she said of the five trips she took between 2005 and 2009. "They told me they needed legislators there to promote the Fiesta Bowl at the other conferences, to encourage them to continue to participate in the Fiesta Bowl, and that was to the benefit of the Arizona economy. So that's why I went. I never sought them out. They sought me."
Lopez said she reported the trips on her financial disclosure reports and has not had to file revisions as other lawmakers have.
The action by the bowl comes more than a month after it sent similar letters to more than two dozen politicians asking them to repay nearly $50,000 in campaign contributions they received.
Those letters were generally received with disdain by lawmakers, and many said they felt the bowl was trying to make them scapegoats for its own failings.
This week's round got similar reviews.
"I wouldn't pay," said House Speaker Andy Tobin, a Republican from Paulden, when asked what he would do if he received a letter demanding payment.
Tobin, who took a trip to Dallas to see a new stadium viewed as a threat to the Fiesta Bowl, said he and other lawmakers went at the bowl's behest to show support for its role in the Bowl Championship Series. "We thought we were really needed," he said.
In the letter to Bennett, bowl attorney Nathan Hochman said the bowl is asking the politicians to document their participation "so that the Fiesta Bowl may have all salient information in determining which benefits, if any, were not in furtherance of the bowl's tax-exempt purpose and therefore require reimbursement from the elected officials."
The bowl is trying to maintain its tax-exempt status in the wake of an internal Fiesta Bowl report earlier this year that detailed a host of irregularities. They included campaign contributions that bowl employees and their families made between 2000 and 2009 and were later reimbursed by the bowl, in apparent violation of federal and state laws. The report also outlined thousands of dollars in inappropriate spending.
Longtime bowl President and CEO John Junker was fired. On June 13, the bowl hired University of Arizona President Robert Shelton to lead the efforts to repair its reputation.
Hochman, the bowl lawyer, said in an interview with the AP that the main purpose of the letters is to comply with tax laws.
"These letters are a step in the process to seek information from the various lawmakers concerning the gifts and benefits they may had received," Hochman said. "We hope that after we receive feedback from them we'll be able to determine what if any of the gifts and benefits need to be reimbursed."
The scandal at the Fiesta Bowl, which also hosts the national football championship every four years, put its role as one of the four top-tier bowl groups in jeopardy. But it avoided the worst sanctions — the loss of the championship game and its NCAA license.
The Bowl Championship Series fined the Fiesta Bowl $1 million earlier this month, and last week the NCAA placed it on probation for a year.
The Arizona attorney general's office is investigating parts of the scandal not involving politicians.