December 18, 2009
With the rise of a vocal anti-BCS lobby and accompanying legislation in Congress, you might get the feeling over the last year or so that the Series has a hostile relationship with politicians. But that tends to be true only with politicians from states -- Utah, Hawaii, Texas, Georgia -- with some history of being denied their slice of the pie in one form or another. Elsewhere, local politicians tend to be much friendlier to engines of millions of dollars' worth of exposure and tourism -- as well as just a little payola, according to the Arizona Republic, in the form of illegal campaign contributions:
Over the past decade as the Fiesta Bowl worked to maintain its elite position as one of the top postseason college-football games, employees made contributions to politicians friendly to the bowl, including some donations that may violate campaign-finance laws.
Past and present Fiesta Bowl employees have told The Arizona Republic they were encouraged to write checks to specific candidates and were reimbursed by the bowl.
"If employees are giving contributions and they were being reimbursed, it's illegal, and it's something we definitely would review," said Amy Bjelland, state elections director.
The dollar amount is weak: $38,000 since 2000 by 14 Fiesta Bowl employees, which averages out to a little over $271 per employee per year; about a third of that reportedly went into the coffers of John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. CEO John Junker denies ever orchestrating or reimbursing any campaign donations.
But it does shine a light on how much pressure the big bowls feel to maintain their place in the pecking order -- especially the Fiesta, which jumped the much more tradition-rich Cotton Bowl into the original Bowl Coalition and later the BCS, and has seen the Cotton make a major investment to reclaim its position by moving to the Dallas Cowboys' lavish new stadium -- and their status as non-profit entities. As such, they're not allowed to hire registered lobbyists. But the Republic reports the Fiesta Bowl has (legally) spent $4 million this decade to hire "consultants" to ply free tickets, trips, dinners and golf retreats on politicians like state Sen. Russell Pearce, who told the paper, "Every four years we run the risk of losing the (BCS) championship game, and I do everything I can to keep the Fiesta Bowl viable. ... It means millions of dollars for the state."
And the whiff of corruption means just one more bit of ammunition for the BCS' powerful critics, who already accuse the Series of anti-trust violations, misleading testimony in front of Congress concerning charitable donations and all-around un-Americanism. Every little bit helps.