Bill Montgomery

Fiesta Bowl Scandal: Valley Politicos Won't Face Charges; County Attorney Says Arizona Law "Doesn't Meet Public's Expectations"

No politicians will be charged with crimes for accepting gifts from the scandal-plagued Fiesta Bowl organization under the leadership of former CEO John Junker -- but that doesn't necessarily mean they didn't do anything wrong (just look at ousted former state Senate President Russell Pearce, who accepted nearly $40,000 in gifts from the organization. More on him below).

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery held a lengthy press conference this morning to explain his office's findings in its probe of several state lawmakers and gifts they received from the organization. According to Montgomery, prosecutors were unable to "find evidence leading to criminal liability for those investigated."

There may not have been enough evidence for Montgomery to charge anyone with a crime, but he says the probe identified "areas where Arizona law does not meet legitimate public expectations for transparency."

In other words, what many of these politicians did was unethical -- and probably is against against the law -- but isn't necessarily illegal under Arizona's current vague statutes, which require prosecutors to prove that defendants "knowingly" violated the law.

For example, Pearce went on at least 16 trips to various cities to watch football games on the Fiesta Bowl's dime. In all, the organization spent $39,347 on the former Senate president to fly him around the country to watch football and stay at pricey hotels.

Pearce didn't agree to an interview with prosecutors but says through his attorney that legislative counsel advised him that the Fiesta Bowl could legally cover his expenses for the trip, but it couldn't cover the cost of tickets to sporting events.

Pearce, however, claims he had no idea that the Fiesta Bowl incurred any cost for giving him "free" tickets and that he requested invoices for any tickets that cost the organization money.

Pearce says he repaid the Fiesta Bowl about $1,400 for tickets he's received over the years. He even provided prosecutors with documentation of some of the checks he claims he wrote to the organization. The Fiesta Bowl, however, has no records of Pearce paying back a dime.

Pearce's response: he didn't realize the organization wasn't cashing his checks.

Then there's the issue of the former senator's son, who also benefited from the Fiesta Bowl's  generosity.

Pearce's son also requested -- and was given -- tickets to sporting events from the Fiesta Bowl. However, because the younger Pearce doesn't live in the same home as his then-senator father, any tickets he received from the organization were perfectly legal under Arizona's current whacky statute.

Despite there being no evidence that Pearce ever actually paid the Fiesta Bowl any money, Montgomery concluded that there was no proof that Pearce knowingly violated the law.

Of the 28 legislators the MCAO investigated, many have similar stories of not knowing they were potentially breaking the law, and legislative counsel did a poor job explaining to lawmakers what gifts they could or couldn't accept, and what gifts they needed to disclose.

When asked if the behavior of the legislators bothered him, Montgomery says, "All of this bothers me."

He went on to say, "The public's expectation is that this can't happen. But it can and it did."

To remedy the situation, Montgomery will make the following recommendations to both houses of the state Legislature:

* Create a single reference point in the law for lobbyists and legislators that clarifies what, if any, types of gifts are permissible, and establishes consistent definitions of gifts and items that require disclosure.

* Establish an outright ban on gifts, or a minimum value threshold above which reporting and disclosure is mandatory for anything received above the set value (e.g. $25).

* Establish increased frequency of reporting, no less than quarterly, to eliminate record-keeping, memory and accuracy issues that can arise with annual reporting requirements. A web-based reporting system also is recommended to facilitate the public's ability to review officials' disclosures.

* Adjust penalties for violations of reporting requirements, making "knowing and intentional" violations a felony offense instead of a misdemeanor.

* Establish a "reckless" standard that carries misdemeanor or civil penalties significant enough to encourage accurate and timely reporting.

* Remove legislative staff attorneys from the role of providing campaign-finance-disclosure recommendations, training, and advice to preclude any claim of attorney-client privilege on these matters.

* Amend lobbying-disclosure forms to include a certification of having read the instructions, as required on campaign-finance-disclosure statements. Add an expenditure-reporting category for Principals/Public Bodies to the Principal/Public Body Annual Report of Lobbying Expenditures.

Montgomery says he hopes the Legislature will set a low value threshold for gifts legislators need to report, or ban gifts altogether.

"You can accept a handshake, and that's it," he says.
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James King
Contact: James King