Saying it wants to protect its tax-exempt status, the Fiesta Bowl is asking more than two dozen current and former lawmakers to justify taking free tickets and travel — or be prepared to reimburse costs of more than $150,000.
In letters to the officials, attorney Nathan Hochman said the organization is permitted to provide tickets, reasonable travel, lodging and meal expenses “so long as these benefits are consistent with its tax-exempt purposes.”
“Please provide any information you have on how these benefits further the Fiesta Bowl’s tax exempt purposes ... as distinguished from your own interests,” Hochman wrote. He said the information will be used to determine whether the Fiesta Bowl is required to seek reimbursement.
But several legislators told Capitol Media Services they have no intention of trying to provide the information, much less write out a check.
“I don’t have to prove to you it was a benefit,” said Sen. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa. “Your board and directors said it was a benefit. You need to go back to them and ask them how they felt it was a benefit. I don’t have to justify anything to you.”
Records provided by the bowl say he got $6,548 in benefits for tickets to games in 2008 and 2009 and related expenses. Crandall said — and the records reflect — that he reimbursed them $366 for the value of the tickets themselves after being informed that accepting them was illegal.
Sen. John McComish, R-Phoenix, who the Fiesta Bowl said accumulated $2,854 in expenses for a 2009 trip, called the request “absurd.” McComish said he went to the college football game in Dallas because Fiesta Bowl officials told him that having him there would help their interests.
“It’s like a friend invited you to his out-of-town wedding and said he was going to pay for it,” he said. “Five years later he gets divorced and sends you a bill.”
The feelings are bipartisan. Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Tucson, who at $16,877 was the third highest beneficiary, said she has no obligation to respond and justify the travel.
“I was told when I was invited, and on every trip I went, that it was important for legislators to be there as we were meeting folks from the other (football) conferences, promoting the Fiesta Bowl. It was important for the economy of the state,” she said. “They’re the ones who wanted me to go.”
All totaled, the benefits the Fiesta Bowl has been able to identify total more than $161,000. But Hochman said that probably is not a complete tally, asking lawmakers and others to check their own records.
Total reimbursements so far are only about $7,300.
The largest recipient, according to the Fiesta Bowl records, is Senate President Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, whose tickets and other benefits exceed $39,300. Pearce has reimbursed $1,417.
Other major beneficiaries include former state Sen. Robert Blendu, R-Litchfield Park, with $17,213 in expenses and $955 in reimbursements, and Rep. Ben Arredondo, D-Tempe, recipient of $13,678 in benefits and no reimbursements for tickets dating back to his days as a member of the Tempe City Council.
The maneuver appears to reflect what might be described as a belated effort by the Fiesta Bowl to protect its tax-exempt status.
In his letters, Hochman says that the expenditures may not run afoul of rules governing what tax-exempt organizations can do. But he said they “may create an appearance of impropriety.”
“The Fiesta Bowl is committed to remedying any appearance of impropriety and maintaining its tax-exempt status by requesting — where appropriate — reimbursement for benefits provided to identified individuals, including elected officials,” he wrote.
State law allows lawmakers to accept travel, food and lodging as long as it is offered to all members of a particular group, whether that be the whole Legislature or a specific committee. The only requirement is that the value be reported.
Several lawmakers have since amended financial disclosure reports to list the value of the travel.
But the law makes it illegal to take tickets for sporting events that are not offered to everybody, which is part of what led to some of the reimbursements.
This is actually the second bid by Hochman to get back Fiesta Bowl funds.
An investigation revealed that Fiesta Bowl employees made donations to the campaigns of politicians and then reimbursed them out of Bowl funds. That became an illegal contribution of corporate money to influence elections.
All totaled, according to an investigative report, more than $48,000 was laundered that way, including $15,000 to fired president and chief executive John Junker. The biggest recipient was U.S. Sen. John McCain, who got $19,500 over several campaigns.
List of beneficiaries and reimbursements Sen. Paula Aboud, D-Tucson / $85 / $55 Former House Speaker Kirk Adams, R-Mesa / $1,988 / $1,064 Former Sen. Linda Aguirre, D-Yuma / $1,353 / $30 Rep. Ben Arredondo, D-Tempe, $13,678 / $0 Secretary of State Ken Bennett / $2,855 / $35 Former Sen. Robert Blendu, R-Litchfield Park / $17,213 / $955 Former Rep. David Bradley, D-Tucson / $3,756 / $0 Former Senate President Bob Burns, R-Peoria / $4,200 / $0 House Minority Leader Chad Campbell / $1,736 / $55 Sen. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa / $6,548 / $366 Former Rep. Sam Crump, R-Phoenix / $1,988 / $0 Sen. Adam Driggs, R-Phoenix / $2,824 / $206 Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix / $1,407 / $0 Former Rep. Laurin Hendrix, R-Gilbert / $1,893 / $0 Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills / $1,813 / $0 Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Tucson / $16,877 / $30 Former Rep. David Lujan, D-Phoenix - $6,420 / $0 Former Rep. Lucy Mason, R-Prescott / $2,793 / $206 Sen. John McComish, R-Phoenix / $2,854 / $206 Sen. Robert Meza, D-Phoenix / $5,729 / $2,320 Sen. John Nelson, R-Litchfield Park / $1,407 / $47 Former Rep. Warde Nichols, R-Gilbert / $1,614 / $0 U.S. Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz. / $2,200 / $0 Senate President Russell Pearce, R-Mesa / $39,347 / $1,417 Corporation Commissioner and former Rep. Gary Pierce, R-Mesa / $1,454 / $35 Sen. Michele Reagan, R-Scottsdale / $3,756 / $160 Pinal County Supervisor and former Rep. Pete Rios, D-Dudleyville / $3,695 / $35 Glendale Mayor Elaine Scruggs / $219 / $0 House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden / $2,824 / $90 Former Rep. Steve Tully, R-Phoenix / $802 / $0 Former Sen. Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert / $6,548 / $0 -- Source: Fiesta Bowl