Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce changed his explanation Monday about how he acquired expensive tickets to a sold-out Navy football game in 2007 after the service academy contradicted statements he made last week to The Arizona Republic.
In a written response May 11 explaining numerous gifts he received from the Fiesta Bowl, Pearce said he did not have to reimburse the bowl for $2,140 spent in 2007 on Navy tickets for him because he had traveled to Annapolis, Md., to present a charitable donation on the bowl's behalf.
Pearce, a Mesa Republican, cited a state law that said legislators performing "a ceremonial function" could accept gifts for a speaking engagement.
The Navy on Monday said it had no record of Pearce delivering a donation check on behalf of the Fiesta Bowl in 2007, when Navy played Air Force. The bowl also said it had no record of asking Pearce to deliver a check.
After being told of those responses, Mike Philipsen, a spokesman for Pearce, late Monday afternoon sent an e-mail to The Republic saying Pearce was mistaken in his earlier comments. Philipsen wrote that Pearce actually attended a 2005 game between Navy and Air Force to present a Fiesta Bowl check in connection with the Navy's stadium renovation.
The Fiesta Bowl's publicly available tax returns confirm that the organization gave the Naval Academy Athletic Association a $50,000 check in November 2005.
However, a bowl spokesman said that, to the best of his knowledge, the organization did not ask Pearce to deliver a check that year.
Pearce's correction leaves open the question of the possible impropriety of his 2007 trip to Annapolis. Neither Pearce nor his spokesman would answer questions about the 2007 game tickets, which the Fiesta Bowl had said it paid for.
Pearce is one of 16 politicians to amend their annual financial-disclosure forms to reflect gifts received from the Fiesta Bowl and other organizations after the bowl on March 29 publicly released findings from its internal investigation. The document detailed spending irregularities, gifts to politicians and possibly illegal campaign donations by bowl employees.
The bowl, a public charity trying to protect its non-profit status with the Internal Revenue Service, plans to ask politicians to reimburse it for gifts they improperly received.
Pearce confirmed in a written statement last week that he had gone on two separate trips to Navy games but that he had allowed the Fiesta Bowl to pay for the 2007 trip because he was performing a ceremonial function.
"As a matter of self-disclosure, I went on a personal trip to another Air Force vs. Navy game in November 2005. This was a personal trip that had nothing to do with the Fiesta Bowl," Pearce wrote.
His office's disclosure Monday that it was, in fact, the 2005 trip at which the Fiesta Bowl offered funds to the Naval Academy leaves unclear whether Pearce will have to reimburse the bowl for his 2007 tickets because he did not perform any official function at that game.
Philipsen did not respond to calls or e-mails from The Republic to clarify Pearce's earlier statement.
A state conflict-of-interest law prohibits public officials from using their positions to obtain anything of value if that benefit is to "manifest a substantial and improper influence."
During the past decade, Pearce took numerous out-of-state trips to attend college-football games at Fiesta Bowl expense. He also took family members on some trips; and, as an influential legislator, he helped push through legislation in 2005 that gave the Fiesta Bowl a $263,000 subsidy.
The trips are legal under Arizona's lobbying laws, although state statutes generally bar lawmakers from accepting free game tickets unless the entire Legislature, a legislative chamber or committee is invited. The statutes also provide for certain other exceptions, such as the one Pearce cited regarding ceremonial functions.
The Navy trips are the latest example in which Pearce has contradicted himself regarding his involvement with the Fiesta Bowl.
Pearce told The Republic three days after the bowl released its report that he always paid for his game tickets. When asked when he paid for those tickets, Pearce said, "Immediately, at the time."
But since making those statements, Pearce has written checks to reimburse the bowl for tickets he did not have "physical proof of payment for."
On April 20, he wrote a check to the bowl for taking tickets to out-of-state games dating to 2002. In his written statement last week, he disclosed a new reimbursement: a check to attend the Big 12 Championship Game in Dallas in December 2009.
The bowl could not confirm receipt of that check on Monday.
Pearce, in last week's written statement, blamed the bowl for shoddy record-keeping and said he repeatedly asked the bowl for invoices but never received them.
He provided the newspaper with some canceled checks, which he said showed compliance with the law. It was unclear from the canceled receipts and check registers how many of the expenses were related to trips as opposed to game tickets.
A Jan. 1, 2006, check for $208 written by Pearce's wife is referred to as payment for tickets for the Insight Bowl, a sister game of the Fiesta Bowl.
A $140 check written on Dec. 3, 2007, to Gary Husk, a lobbyist for the bowl at the time, was for tickets to a game between Arizona State University and UCLA, according to a reference line on the check.
Pearce also has disputed claims by the Fiesta Bowl that the bowl spent $4,060 for tickets to see the University of Southern California play Ohio State in Los Angeles in 2008.
Pearce said his son, Justin, and his son's friends attended that game. Pearce said Justin received the tickets from the Fiesta Bowl's lobbyist.
State statutes do not prohibit businesses or lobbyists from giving gifts to politicians' spouses or family members. But that doesn't mean accepting freebies is ethically advisable or appropriate, said Judy Nadler, a senior fellow at Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. She called the gift an example of the bowl's "influence peddling" at the Legislature.
"It's exactly the same as if you received the gift yourself," she said.
"You will feel warm and fuzzy because your son and his friends will be talking about what was, no doubt, a great experience for a long time thereafter. The public simply sees it as a way to claim innocence, when, in fact, all you've done is accept something of considerable value for your family member."
Nadler added: "It doesn't matter whether a statute prohibits it. It shouldn't be done."
John Zidich, CEO and publisher of The Arizona Republic, is a former member of the Fiesta Bowl's board of directors and was on the bowl's five-member executive committee from January 2010 to April 2011. The Arizona Republic is a Fiesta Bowl advertising sponsor.