The Fiesta Bowl – Charity or Charade?

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March 29, 2011; Source: Arizona Republic | Questions are being raised about whether the directors of the Fiesta Bowl, a non-profit organization responsible for running two of college football’s largest post season games, were negligent, deceived, or just having too much fun to govern. The organization’s CEO was fired and several senior executives resigned when an investigation revealed spending sprees, falsified documents and political cover-ups within the Scottsdale, Ariz., based organization.

While most sports fans are now deeply enthralled in March Madness, a 276- page report was released on Tuesday outlining several alleged conflicts, including reimbursing employees for campaign contributions made to political candidates. The report documents that bowl employees were reimbursed over $46,000 in campaign donations to 23 candidates since 2002. This is a clear violation of campaign finance laws and jeopardizes the bowl’s tax- exempt status.

The investigation also revealed the organization invited state legislators to attend out of town football games with lobbyists and organization representatives. The bowl spent $18,454 for a 2005 trip to Chicago and more than $65,000 for a 2008 Boston trip.

The bowl’s stated mission is to sponsor football games and related events in a way that promotes the state’s higher education and economy while serving as a “source of national pride for all Arizonans.” It is operated through four non-profit organizations. The Arizona Republic reports the combined net assets of the four organizations totaled $22.3 million as of March 30, 2010. In addition to annually organizing two bowl games and the national Bowl Championship game every four years, the Fiesta Bowl hosts hundreds of community events run by thousands of volunteers.

Arizona state law requires directors of non-profit organizations to “maintain vigilance for financial wrongdoing and other misconduct.”

A former Fiesta Bowl board member, who is currently chair of another Arizona sports organization, noted the 24-member board did not take the oversight responsibilities seriously until recently. “Everybody had a good time and a hell of a great party,” said Bill Peltier, who left the organization five years ago. He said the directors were hard-core football fans who rarely questioned John Junker, the fired CEO. It looks like the party is over and the real fun is just beginning.—Nancy Knoche