PHOENIX — More than two dozen Arizona politicians who received free game tickets or trips from the Fiesta Bowl will not face criminal charges, a prosecutor said Wednesday.
The investigation into whether the elected officials illegally accepted or failed to report the gifts did not find enough evidence to pursue criminal cases, Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said.
He blamed inconsistent state laws, vague reporting requirements and a legal requirement that prosecutors prove a defendant “knowingly” violated the law as major factors in his decision.
“I understand the appearance of impropriety argument, and how it can be reported,” Montgomery said. “But there’s a difference … in what it looks like and what we can do as prosecutors.”
“They had to know at the time they filed it that it was incomplete or false,” he added.
The decision removed a pall that has been cast over many state lawmakers since April, when Montgomery began investigating whether politicians violated a law banning acceptance of free game tickets in most cases and failed to report receiving free trips or tickets.
Montgomery called on the state Legislature to overhaul the state’s rules for lobbyists and state lawmakers, toughen reporting requirements, ban gifts outright and make some violations a felony. He said changes were needed “in order for the public’s expectation of open and honest government to be met.”
Combining reporting and gift laws into one simplified statute will help clear up confusion and help prosecutors if they need to pursue a case, he said. He advocated the gift ban or, at the least, the allowance of only gifts of very low retail value.
Under his recommendations, elected officials should accept “nothing – you can accept a handshake and that’s it,” Montgomery said.
He also said he wants a law to require quarterly financial reporting by lobbyists, from the current yearly mandate, and an online system for easier compliance.
In addition to a possible felony charge for “knowing and intentional” violations, Montgomery wants clarifications that allow misdemeanor criminal or civil penalties for reckless reporting failures. He suggested that legislative staff attorneys be removed from their role advising lawmakers, to avoid any attorney-client privilege issues.
“We’re going to have to have some changes if we’re going to meet the public’s expectation of openness and disclosure,” he said.
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 already has been charged in that case.
The county attorney’s probe was prompted by an internal Fiesta Bowl investigation into illegal political contributions and lavish spending by top bowl officials. Montgomery took over the case after the Arizona Attorney General’s office declared a conflict of interest.
The internal investigation, 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.
Twenty-eight of those Montgomery investigated were current or former state lawmakers, and he said his office’s 8-month probe involved going through 4,000 pages of documents that included nearly 10 years of financial disclosure statements. He also investigated three prominent lobbyists.
The county attorney said some lawmakers told his office that they accepted the trips as ambassadors of the state, not for personal benefit or enjoyment. Former state Senate President Russell Pearce typically disclosed all gifts, tickets and trips, but not the Fiesta Bowl trips, which Montgomery said could mean the Republican legislator believed he did not have to report those items.
“There were some legislators who were angry that I was investigating them because they thought it was clear they had done nothing wrong,” Montgomery said.
Topping the recipients were Pearce, 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.