Oklahoma takes the field at the 2011 Fiesta Bowl

AP photo

PHOENIX - Saying it wants to protect its tax-exempt status, the Fiesta Bowl has asked more than 30 current and former lawmakers to justify taking free tickets and travel or be prepared to reimburse costs of more than $150,000.

In letters to the officials, attorney Nathan Hochman said the organization is permitted to provide tickets, reasonable travel, lodging and meal expenses "so long as these benefits are consistent with its tax-exempt purposes."

"Please provide any information you have on how these benefits further the Fiesta Bowl's tax exempt purposes ... as distinguished from your own interests," Hochman wrote. He said the information will be used to determine whether the Fiesta Bowl is required to seek reimbursement.

But several legislators said they have no plans to provide the information, much less write out a check.

"I don't have to prove to you it was a benefit," said Sen. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa.

"Your board and directors said it was a benefit," he continued. "You need to go back to them and ask them how they felt it was a benefit. I don't have to justify anything to you."

Records provided by the bowl say he got $6,548 in tickets to games in 2008 and 2009 and related expenses. Crandall said - and the records confirm - he reimbursed them $366 for the value of the tickets themselves after being informed that accepting them was illegal.

Senate President Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, who the Fiesta Bowl said accumulated $39,347 in expenses for several trips, called the request "outrageous."

Pearce said he went to one college football game in Dallas because Fiesta Bowl officials told him having him and other legislators there would help their interests.

He said there was some fear at the time that Texas wanted to become part of the Bowl Championship Series, the championship game rotating among four bowls, including the Fiesta Bowl. Pearce said he was told that the trip would help keep the Cotton Bowl either from replacing the Fiesta Bowl or becoming a fifth partner, which would dilute the value of being part of the BCS for the Fiesta Bowl.

Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Tucson, who at $16,877 was the third-highest beneficiary, said she has no obligation to respond and justify the travel.

"I was told when I was invited, and on every trip I went, that it was important for legislators to be there as we were meeting folks from the other (football) conferences, promoting the Fiesta Bowl; it was important for the economy of the state," she said. "They're the ones who wanted me to go."

Questioned benefits the Fiesta Bowl has been able to identify total more than $161,000. But Hochman said that probably is not a complete tally, and asked lawmakers and others to check their own records.

Total reimbursements so far are only about $7,300.

The largest recipient, according to the Fiesta Bowl records, is Pearce, who has reimbursed $1,417, followed by former state Sen. Robert Blendu, R-Litchfield Park, with $17,213 in expenses and $955 in reimbursements, and Lopez, who has reimbursed $30 of the $16,877 in expenses.

The maneuver appears to reflect what might be described as a belated effort by the Fiesta Bowl to protect its tax-exempt status. In his letters, Hochman says the expenditures may not violate rules governing what tax-exempt organizations can do. But he said they "may create an appearance of impropriety."

Pearce said it's wrong to put the burden on lawmakers, who thought they were helping.

"If anything's wrong or improper because of their national charitable classification, it's between them and the feds, not us," he said.

State law allows lawmakers to accept travel, food and lodging as long as the value is reported. Several lawmakers have since amended financial disclosure reports to list the value of the travel.

But the law makes it illegal to take tickets for sporting events unless every member of a specific group, whether it be the entire Legislature, a specific chamber or even a specific committee, is invited.

Copies of the bills also went to Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, who is investigating whether any criminal acts were committed.

The Fiesta Bowl remains in the BCS rotation despite the scandal. But BCS officials did impose a $1 million fine and placed the bowl on probation.