Ethics bills creep along after Fiesta Bowl scandal
PHOENIX — A criminal investigation into the Fiesta Bowl scandal has started producing guilty pleas, but proposals to tighten gift restrictions and bolster disclosure requirements for officials and lobbyists are nowhere near the goal line at the Legislature.
Criminal cases in the scandal stem from illegal reimbursements to bowl employees for making campaign contributions to politicians apparently unaware of the arrangement.
But many current and former legislators were stung by a Fiesta Bowl report's separate disclosure that the lawmakers accepted free trips and game tickets.
Authorities cast the freebies as attempts to curry favor with lawmakers, many of whom said they took the trips to show support for the state's showcase college football event.
In response to the scandal, more than a half-dozen proposals were introduced in the state Senate alone in the current session, with bill sponsors saying laws on gifts and disclosures needed to be strengthened.
Lawmakers say the need for the measures is underscored by a recent report from Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, whose office investigated 31 elected officials and three lobbyists, saying state laws on gifts and disclosures are so complex and inconsistent that he could not pursue criminal charges.
Senate legislation includes measures prohibiting lawmakers from accepting tickets to athletic or entertainment events. Senate proposals also include bills aimed at lobbyists with plans that would bar them from giving lawmakers anything of value, prevent them from bundling campaign contributions and require spending daily reports.
But the bills have been parked in place without hearings or votes since Senate President Steve Pierce assigned nearly all of them to the Rules Committee, a panel which he chairs and which normally only conducts legal reviews of bills already endorsed by other committees.
Freshman Sen. Jerry Lewis, a Mesa Republican who won a November recall election in which he made incumbent Russell Pearce's acceptance of Fiesta Bowl trips an issue, said he's working with state officials and lobbyists to draft a reform bill.
Lewis said he's not worried that his bill is on hold in the Rules Committee — but another lawmaker whose bill is also planted there said he thinks it means his legislation is dead.
Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, said assigning the bills to the Rules Committee ensures that they don't get a required hearing without agreement among majority Republicans.
He also said that fellow Republican senators criticized a total gift ban as "the nuclear option" during a caucus discussion.
"I can police myself so I don't need more restrictive rules, but the reason I ran the bill was to help the other members from getting themselves in a bind, so it's up to them to decide whether they need the rules to keep themselves out of a bind," said Gould, who is chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee.
Sen. Steve Gallardo, a Phoenix Democratic who sponsored several ethics-related bills, said some fellow legislators may have voiced concern after the Fiesta Bowl scandal broke but they don't want to change the rules or even go on record on the issue.
"I think some members like the idea of being invited to Diamondbacks games. They like being invited to NASCAR. They like being invited to those things," Gallardo said. "They don't want to cut that out. They don't want to be on the board voting 'no' against a lobbyist reform bill."
Pierce, R-Prescott, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on why he assigned the bills to the Rules Committee or whether the measures would ever see the light of day.
Meantime, the state House on Thursday rejected an amendment to require more disclosures from lobbyists and groups that provide legislators with free trips. The amendment would have been added to a bill imposing new disclosure requirements on lobbyists.
Rep. Steve Farley said legislators need to be transparent and accountable to the public, citing the Fiesta Bowl scandal and conference scholarships provided lawmakers by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.
Republicans opposed the Tucson Democrat's attempt to amend the public-lobbyist bill, with Majority Leader Steve Court saying some of the same disclosure topics would be addressed in a bill he has introduced. However, that bill did not get a required committee hearing by the normal deadline, so its fate is uncertain.
Several bills related to disclosure issues have made modest progress in the House.
One would provide the Secretary of State's office with a $500,000 appropriation to pay for developing an online database for reviewing officials' financial disclosure reports and separate reports filed by lobbyists. That bill has been endorsed by two House committees but still awaits action by the full House.
Secretary of State Ken Bennett, a supporter of the bill, said it's only indirectly related to the Fiesta Bowl scandal but would help provide sunshine on possible conflicts of interest and patterns of lobbying activities. With the database, reports that now are available through public records requests would be viewable online, he said.
A second bill already endorsed by the House committee would make numerous changes to disclosure requirements for public officials, but most of that bill pertains to their business interests, not gifts or lobbying activities.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.