Fiesta Bowl Wants Money Back from Politicians

Michael Giberson

In an actual episode of journalism, the Arizona Republic has been digging into the operations of the Fiesta Bowl, including, among other things, its lavish spending on state and local politicians. The Fiesta Bowl, which is negotiating with the Internal Revenue Service in an attempt to preserve its non-profit status, has concluded that much of its spending on trips and tickets for politicians may not have been consistent with “the Fiesta Bowl’s tax exempt purposes.” And so, as part of an effort to clean up its act, the Bowl has decided to ask for the money back.

This is awesome.

Here is a bit from the Arizona Republic‘s report:

After years of attempting to curry favor with elected officials by lavishing them with expensive gifts including out-of-state trips and tickets to sporting events, the Fiesta Bowl now indicates it wants the money back.

The bowl, which is negotiating with the Internal Revenue Service to preserve its non-profit status, is asking 31 politicians to help it determine whether trips and gifts they received “serve the Fiesta Bowl’s tax-exempt purposes.”

If they cannot, the bowl says, it may ask the politicians to reimburse it for the trips and gifts, an amount that could exceed $154,000.

Until late last year, the bowl had made it a practice of spending on politicians in an effort to lobby for help landing subsidies or legislation to benefit the non-profit organization. The bowl changed course after The Arizona Republic in December 2009 first reported that current and former bowl employees said they were reimbursed for making campaign contributions, which is illegal, and cited questionable business practices.

The bowl’s later internal investigation found excessive spending by employees and confirmation of the campaign-contribution reimbursement scheme. The bowl fired John Junker, its longtime chief executive, who has been replaced by outgoing University of Arizona President Robert Shelton.

In some cases the politicians have paid a bit back to the Fiesta Bowl and in other cases the politicians have argued they were traveling on Fiesta Bowl related business trips, and therefore ought not to be presented with a bill for the travel months or years after the fact. Among the items paid for by the Fiesta Bowl were trips and tickets that allowed state and local politicians to attend events like the 2009 Super Bowl, the Big 12 Championship game (Texas-Nebraska) in 2009, the Texas-Oklahoma football game in Dallas, and the Auburn-Alabama football game in 2006.

Perhaps some of the public officials were doing real and legitimate work for the Fiesta Bowl during their trips, but it looks like petty corruption. (One might wonder why these multi-million dollar entertainment extravaganzas are tax exempt in the first place – is the story that they further the education of thousands of student-athletes? Are they huge charity events?) In any case, I wouldn’t be surprised if other big college football bowls were discovered to engage in similar practices. Let the journalism continue!