Gifts to Legislators

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Amid reports that some state lawmakers accepted gifts from the Fiesta Bowl that were not reported on their financial disclosure statements, we learn about Arizona’s laws regarding gifts to lawmakers from Secretary of State Ken Bennett whose office maintains the financial reports of lawmakers and lobbyists.

Ted Simons: Some state politicians could be in trouble for not disclosing gifts they received from the Fiesta Bowl. But what are the rules for such things, and what are the penalties? Here to help us with the answer assist secretary of state Ken Bennett, whose office keeps records of disclosures. Bennett is also seeing the issue from the other side, he was a long-time lawmaker and former senate president. Good to see you again.

Ken Bennett: Hi Ted, how're you doing?

Ted Simons: I'm doing alright - I'm a little confused here. So that's not a first. What is required of politicians receiving gifts?

Ken Bennett: Well, before I answer that, I'd like to make sure everyone is clear as to why -- what role did the secretary of state's office have in this whole Fiesta Bowl thing? And the gifts kind of came out of that. But one of the -- the one responsibility that our office not only performs as a filing office responsibility, but also has some enforcement responsibility, is this whole idea of campaign contributions. That people give to candidates, political candidates. And a complaint was filed with our office over a year ago by a national group that doesn't like the bowl championship series, and they have been tipped off by somebody that employees at the Fiesta Bowl who had given campaign contributions to candidates had been reimbursed by the Fiesta Bowl. So that's the specific complaint that our office looked into. And we asked for some information, and after several weeks we finally realized we needed to go over and actually look at the documents. We spent weeks, in fact, months, I personally was involved in looking through boxes and boxes. And it became clear to us that we never could find the smoking gun, but we could find the gun and we could find some smoke. And so we referred it over to the county -- to the attorney general's office. When that -- when the news story broke that we had referred it on for further investigation, apparently one of the employees at the Fiesta Bowl reported to one of their superiors that this reimbursement had in fact occurred. And so then the Fiesta Bowl invited -- contracted with an accounting firm to come in and do a complete audit of all of their books and all of that. As that report was being compiled, they started to see these expenses for inviting legislators to Fiesta Bowl games, or taking them to other games where they might have had some meetings about how the BCS works, or whatever. So that has given rise to, and I apologize for now just getting to your question about, what happens with gifts? And I think part of what's causing the misunderstanding and the frustration is that there's two main pieces of law in the state of Arizona. One speaks specifically about what can a lobbyist give an elected official. And basically the answer to that is, a lobbyist cannot give anything over $10 in value, nor can a legislator elected official accept anything over $10 in value except this big long list of things that are listed in the state law's exceptions. If it's coming from your family, if the gift is a speaking engagement, food, travel, lodging, flowers. There's actually a legislator that died years ago and lobbyists couldn't even send flowers to the funeral, so they added that in one time. Special events. That's the one that is listed as an exception. And it says if a legislator is invited to a special event, that's not a gift as long as the entire legislature is invited, or an entire committee within the legislature is invited. And so all throughout the year, if they get invited to a Fiesta Bowl or a this or a that, they're being told this is not a gift, because we're inviting everyone from the whatever committee, or the entire house, or the entire senate. So all throughout the year they're being told this is or this isn't a give, and on and on and on. Then there's another section of the law that says at the end of the year all elected officials and candidates have to file a financial disclosure statement. And then they have to list who are my family members, where do I receive income of more than $1,000, who do I owe money to, who owes money to me, do I have any offices, any boards or do I own business, do I have financial interest stocks, bonds, and one of the things in this annual financial disclosure is gifts. And they're supposed to list on that any gifts that they received that were more than value of $500.

Ted Simons: Single and accumulated?

Ken Bennett: Accumulated.

Ted Simons: OK.

Ken Bennett: So -- single but accumulated. If you received $50 11 times, or something worth $50 11 times, by the end of the year you've accumulated over $500. So you have this financial disclosure part of the law that says report gifts over $500, then you have this other part of state law that says, all of these things including special events are not gifts, and I think we have a lot of confusion amongst legislators who have been going all throughout the year saying those aren't gifts, but is it a gift now when I file this financial disclosure.

Ted Simons: OK. The personal financial disclosure statements, lots of folks are amending those. What does that mean? Can I go rob a bank and come back later, I'll pay you back. What's going on there?

Ken Bennett: In our office we don't see the amendment -- at the amendment of a report as an admission of guilt.

Ted Simons: But how long does a lawmaker have the opportunity to do that?

Ken Bennett: Theoretically -- there's no limit that says you can't go back a certain number of years or whatever. I had to amend one of my report as couple of years ago because one of the businesses that our family is involved in, we broke it into two companies, and the first year after that I had been used to reporting that I owned a part of the stock in this one company, and the next year when I reported that, I forgot that we had broken it into two companies, so a year or two later when I realized oh, we have two companies not one, I went back and amended. So in our office, as the filing officer, we don't see amendments as admission of guilt or anything that we see as an enforcement or a gotcha. In fact, we encourage people if they remember something that they forgot, or if they realize that I was told all year that this isn't a gift, but I should have listed it over here because it was more than $500, now intentionally, if they're -- the law says knowingly. If they're knowingly leaving things off of the financial statements, or the financial disclosures, then there's a part of the law where a county attorney or the attorney general could come in and say, no, that wasn't an oversight, that was an intentional --

Ted Simons: let me ask you this -- can a politician accept tickets for free and then later reimburse whoever gave them the tickets for free? Reimburse anyone? Can you basically get stuff for free and later say oops, I better go reimburse. Something about that sounds wrong.

Ken Bennett: Not in an oops thing. If you want to pay for tickets, in my company we used to get tickets and pass them out to customers as rewards and things like that. So people know that this company has some season tickets and whatever. So if a lawmaker is not prohibited from going to sporting or cultural events. If they've got a friend who has tickets, they can say, can I buy your tickets, go to the game? There's nothing wrong with that. It shouldn't be happening in an oops situation, especially from lobbyists, and during most of the last several years, the Fiesta Bowl was doing lobbying, and so it shouldn't be happening too often if ever as an oops situation, but there's nothing to prohibit that a legislator says, joe, I know you got tickets to the D'backs, are you using the ones on Thursday night, and if not, can I buy them from you and go? That's fine.

Ted Simons: Last question, very quickly from where you sit, is there enough here for the attorney general to take a look and see what's going on?

Ken Bennett: Well, I think the attorney general can look in and see what kind of amendments were -- have been occurring. If legislators are coming in and saying, you know, these things they tell me all throughout the year are not gifts, and if it was one of those that was not listed on the annual financial disclosure statement, then they can probably say, that might be an oversight. But if it was a single big nice ticket, if you weren't part of a special event, if you weren't part of the larger committee or group of the legislature, and you were given some pretty nice tickets, and then four years later you're oopsing it, that might be a whole different -- that's left up to the prosecutors, not our office, to decide.

Ted Simons: Gotcha. Good to see you again. Thanks for joining us.

Ken Bennett: Thanks, Ted.

Ken Bennett:Secretary of State;

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