WASHINGTON – Nine of the 11 members of an NCAA panel that will help decide the Fiesta Bowl's fate attended a bowl-sponsored retreat that included free meals, resort rooms and golf outings.
The nine names all showed up on a 2008 "Fiesta Frolic" attendee list obtained by Playoff PAC in a public records request. The group provided the list to The Associated Press.
The NCAA Postseason Bowl Licensing Subcommittee is scheduled to meet with Fiesta Bowl officials this week in New Orleans, but won't make a decision on whether to revoke the bowl's license until later this spring. The Fiesta Bowl, played at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., is one of four bowls that rotate hosting the Bowl Championship Series national title game.
"This is a jury of the bowl's former freeloaders," charged Bryson Morgan, co-founder of Playoff PAC, which advocates switching to a playoff system to determine a national college football champion. Morgan questioned how a decision by the panel members can be considered credible given their attendance at the Fiesta Frolic.
An internal report by the bowl last month detailed about $45,000 in reimbursements to employees for political donations, an apparent violation of federal and state laws. It also uncovered lavish and inappropriate spending, such as $33,000 for a Pebble Beach, Calif., birthday bash for CEO and President John Junker, $13,000 for the wedding and honeymoon of an aide, and a $1,200 strip club tab for Junker and two others. Junker has been fired.
The Fiesta Frolic was recently renamed the "Valley of the Sun Experience & Fiesta Bowl Seminars." The report quoted a bowl official as saying some attendees requested a name change to make it sound less like a "boondoggle." According to the report, the Fiesta Bowl pays for hotel expenses, two dinners, two rounds of golf, and offers spa certificates to certain participants. Spouses' expenses are picked up as well, and sponsors such as Nike provide complimentary gifts. Attendees pay for their own travel.
In a tax complaint with the IRS last year, Playoff PAC called the Fiesta Frolic a frivolous use of charitable funds that cost about $1.3 million from 2005 to 2008, a figure the Fiesta Bowl report said was accurate.
The subcommittee chairman, Nick Carparelli, was one of the members to attend the 2008 Fiesta Frolic. He said that in his case, the Fiesta Bowl picked up only the cost of the golf and the meals, not the lodging, and he didn't see any problem with it.
"Those types of things are typical in any kind of business," said Carparelli, who is also senior associate commissioner at the Big East Conference. "I don't see those being a conflict of interest in any way for our committee members. I do think we should be more sensitive to those issues in the future, and the committee is going to be reviewing the issue moving forward ... and make sure that all the members understand the possible conflicts of interest."
Another subcommittee member on the Fiesta Frolic list was Mark Womack, the Southeastern Conference executive associate commissioner. Conference spokesman Charles Bloom said Monday that Womack has been on various NCAA committees and that his track record "speaks for itself." The other seven either didn't return e-mail and phone messages or declined to comment Monday.
Michael McCann, director of the Sports Law Institute at Vermont Law School, said that cases like these demonstrate why junkets often cause problems.
"Even when there isn't an actual conflict of interest, even if people can be objective, the appearance of a conflict can really damage the credibility of the group that's deciding on crucial issues related to the Bowl Championship Series and college football in general," he said. "To the extent Congress and the Justice Department are interested in this, this type of finding certainly elevates the radar as to is this a fair process."
"Any time there are freebies, suspicions will be raised," McCann added. "The irony of it is that the players are the ones who are subjected to what many consider to be onerous restrictions of what they can receive. And yet the ones who are deciding where they would play in the postseason don't appear to be subject to the same level of scrutiny."
Besides Carparelli and Womack, the other seven subcommittee members who attended the '08 Fiesta Frolic are:
— Barry Alvarez, University of Wisconsin athletic director
— Mike Bohn, University of Colorado athletic director
— Tom Bowen, San Jose State University athletic director
— Bob De Carolis, Oregon State University athletic director
— Dave Heeke, Central Michigan University athletic director
— Paul Krebs, University of New Mexico athletic director
— Chris Massaro, Middle Tennessee State University athletic director
The only two subcommittee members not on the 2008 Fiesta Frolic attendee list are Duke University football coach David Cutcliffe and University of Southern Mississippi athletics director Richard Giannini. Both said Monday that they had never attended the event.
Last week, the NCAA announced it would delay its decision on whether to license the Fiesta Bowl, saying it needs time to gather information on how the event will be managed in the future, and wanted to review the findings of a BCS task force looking into the internal report's findings.
According to the records obtained by Playoff PAC, two of the seven members of that task force also attended the 2008 Fiesta Frolic: Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby and Sun Belt Commissioner Wright Waters.
Waters said Monday that he paid for lodging but accepted golf green fees one day and two dinners.
"Accepting a round of golf and two meals over three days is not illegal and certainly fits into the range of normal corporate hospitality," he said. "Further if I or other members of the Task Force thought I had a conflict, I would not have agreed to serve. I do not believe that golf and meals would affect judgment on a serious manner like the task force is handling. However, I do think that what was considered common practice three years ago is certainly worthy of review at all levels and no doubt change is inevitable."
Bowlsby did not respond to e-mail and phone messages.
The Fiesta Bowl has canceled this year's event, which was originally scheduled for next week, saying it wanted to focus on hiring new staff and adopting new rules. The bowl says it plans to bring it back next year.
BCS executive director Bill Hancock, who formed the task force, said Monday he attended the 2008 Fiesta Frolic and paid his own way. (He said he didn't remember if the Fiesta Bowl had ever paid for his expenses.)
"Some members have participated and some have not, and many of us have also attended the Fiesta Bowl games. But attendance at either event has no bearing on the decisions our group of experts will make," said Hancock, adding that the task force "will render an appropriate and well considered judgment."