Prosecutor: Fiesta Bowl probe shows changes needed

December 21, 2011 - 4:27 AM

PHOENIX (AP) — More than two dozen Arizona politicians who received free game tickets or trips from the Fiesta Bowl will learn Wednesday whether they will face criminal charges.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery plans a morning press briefing where he'll also detail changes he'd like to see in the state's financial reporting laws for legislators and lobbyists.

The proposals include either an outright ban on any gifts to lawmakers, or at the least allowing only gifts with a very low value. He also wants clarifications in the gift and reporting laws that he says made his investigation difficult, and he wants some violations to be a felony rather than the current misdemeanor.

Montgomery has declined to say in advance of his briefing whether anyone will be prosecuted.

Federal authorities are separately investigating other aspects of the Fiesta Bowl scandal, including an alleged scheme to reimburse employees for political contributions. One former executive is already charged in that case.

In addition to the gift ban and added penalties, Montgomery wants laws covering lobbyists and lawmakers combined and clarified, and he wants financial reporting to be online and more frequent, spokesman Jerry Cobb confirmed Tuesday evening. Montgomery also wants legislative staff attorneys removed from their role advising lawmakers, to avoid any attorney-client privilege issues, Cobb said.

Montgomery's proposals were first reported by the Arizona Capitol Times.

The county attorney's probe was prompted by an internal Fiesta Bowl investigation into illegal political contributions and lavish spending by top bowl officials. The results released in March included evidence that 31 current or former Arizona politicians received free game tickets or trips, many in apparent conflict with state law that bars receipt of free tickets in most cases. Many also failed to report what they received on their required annual financial disclosure reports.

The Fiesta Bowl has asked the politicians who received more than $161,000 worth of free trips or game tickets to explain how they benefited the tax-exempt group, and it implied it may ask them to repay the costs if the expenditures can't be justified. Some had already done so.

Topping the recipients were former 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 Democratic state Sen. Linda Lopez with $16,877.

Longtime bowl President and CEO John Junker was fired after the internal investigation. On June 13, the bowl hired University of Arizona President Robert Shelton to lead the efforts to repair its reputation.

Bowl officials have been cooperating with local, state and federal investigations.

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 and the NCAA placed it on probation for a year.