Allegations of campaign finance wrongdoing tossed against Fiesta Bowl

April 6, 2011

The college bowl game system, which has come under attack for doling out perks and other favors, is now the target of new allegations: that one of its top members brazenly violated campaign finance laws.

The Fiesta Bowl, which hosts the contest of the same name each January in Arizona, fired longtime president and chief executive John Junker last week following the release of a wide-ranging report alleging a variety of misdeeds, including improper reimbursement of more than $46,000 in local and federal campaign donations.

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The report by a special investigative panel concluded that Fiesta Bowl executives pressured employees to make contributions to influential politicians — including Sen. John McCain, a former presidential contender — then paid back the donors in an apparent violation of campaign finance laws. Investigators said they found no evidence that McCain or any other recipients knew about the reimbursements.

The 276-page report also detailed a long list of questionable expenditures by Fiesta Bowl executives, including a $1,200 strip club outing and a $30,000 birthday party for Junker.

The scandal marks another public relations disaster for the five-game Bowl Championship Series, which has come under growing scrutiny from universities and other advocates of a playoff system for college football akin to the NCAA basketball tournament. BCS officials said they are reviewing the Fiesta Bowl’s status.

The Fiesta Bowl’s board of directors decried the “improper and inappropriate activities” outlined in the report and said it was implementing a series of reforms to increase oversight and transparency. Junker could not be reached to comment.

More than $28,000 of the questionable political contributions identified in the report went to federal lawmakers, including McCain and Sen. Jon Kyl, both Arizona Republicans. In one example highlighted in the report, Junker and his wife gave one of McCain’s campaign committees $4,200 in March 2007; Junker was paid the same amount five months later in a bonus check marked “MC.”

The report also said McCain and his wife were granted use of a “dignitary suite” at the 2007 bowl game. McCain’s son Andrew sits on the Fiesta Bowl’s board.

McCain spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan said past contributions linked to the Fiesta Bowl were donated to charity last week. She also said the suite identified in the report was paid for by the McCains as required under Senate ethics rules.

“Neither Senator McCain nor his campaign staff were aware of any alleged reimbursements for political contributions made to his campaign,” Buchanan said. “Senator McCain has always complied with all appropriate rules and regulations for political contributions.”

A Kyl spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

Playoff PAC, an advocacy group, filed complaints with the Internal Revenue Service against the Fiesta, Sugar and Orange bowls questioning their use of interest-free loans, salaries and other perks.

One of the group’s founders, GOP campaign finance lawyer Matthew Sanderson, said the Fiesta Bowl report illustrates a pattern of “shockingly questionable behavior” by a bowl system eager to curry favor with politicians.

Brett Kappel, a Washington campaign finance lawyer not connected to the case, said such reimbursements would violate sections of the Federal Election Campaign Act, which forbids corporate contributions and making donations in another name. The Fiesta Bowl could face criminal fines or the loss of its tax-exempt status if prosecutors pursued a case, he said.

“This is as serious as it gets in federal campaign finance law,” Kappel said.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission this week asking the agency to begin its own investigation.

“The question here isn’t whether anyone broke the law — independent investigators already found violations,” said Melanie Sloan, CREW’s executive director. “It is whether the FEC will do anything about it.”

CREW and other groups frequently criticize the FEC for not acting on major cases because of an ongoing standoff between Republican and Democratic commissioners. The FEC declined to comment.

Star power

Amid war, economic distress and a fierce budget battle, advocates for campaign finance reform are having a hard time getting noticed. So they decided to go Hollywood on Wednesday to generate a little excitement.

Alec Baldwin, a star of NBC’s “30 Rock” and a Democrat, appeared alongside Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) and Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) at a Capitol Hill news conference kicking off a proposed public-financing bill.

The Fair Elections Now Act would give candidates 5-to-1 matching funds if they agreed to limit fundraising to donors giving $100 or less.

No word on what Baldwin co-star Tina Fey thinks of all this.

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