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STA chief, Bidwills have Clashed in Past

Last month, high-ranking state officials lashed out at Ted Ferris, saying his ham-fisted approach to 2008 Super Bowl talks with the NFL raised questions about his leadership.  It wasn’t the first time Ferris, chief of the public agency that built and now runs University of Phoenix Stadium, had come under fire.  More than a year earlier, the Arizona Cardinals mounted what Ferris’ attorneys and allies had called a private campaign to oust him as president and chief executive of the Arizona Sports & Tourism Authority.

Documents recently obtained by The Arizona Republic show that in early 2006, the Cardinals organization, which invested $150 million in stadium construction, audited 32 boxes of authority financial records dated from 2001 to 2005.  After that initial review, the team approached authority board members and suggested that Ferris had taken gifts from vendors or potential vendors and had spent thousands of tax dollars on upscale hotel rooms, expensive meals and alcohol.  The authority subsequently hired former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles E. Jones to conduct an independent investigation. His findings, released on May 26, 2006, exonerated Ferris and the authority of any wrongdoing.  “All questions were clarified by Chief Justice Jones, and the Authority’s record was cleared after exhaustive review,” Ferris wrote in a prepared statement. 

Mary Ellen Simonson, a Lewis & Roca attorney who represents Ferris, suggested in a memo to Jones that the review was “a regrettable personal campaign to smear Mr. Ferris” to further Cardinals executive Michael Bidwill’s desire to have Ferris fired.  Bidwill on Monday said it was a dispute over a $3.8 million funding shortfall that prompted the team to audit the authority’s books.  He dismissed the notion of any campaign against Ferris.  “It’s a bit of a smoke screen to take focus off the real issues here,” he said.  According to Ferris’ attorneys, Cardinals lobbyist Wes Gullett told Ferris and authority board members in early 2006 that “he is spending much of his time trying to get Mr. Ferris fired.”  Gullett did not deny making those statements on Monday, stating Ferris “was not doing a good job.”

Defending his work, Jones said, “Both parties (the authority and the Cardinals) knew I would get paid.  The Cardinals people were fully supportive that I would lend my reputation and independence in doing a report that was unbiased, and that’s exactly what I did.”  The Arizona Republic’s review of hundreds of pages of authority e-mails, memos and financial documents obtained through a state Public Records Law request, comes just a little more than a month after a rift between the authority and NFL surfaced over use of the Glendale stadium during the 2008 Super Bowl.  Despite efforts to fire him, Ferris managed to secure the support of a majority of board members and hung on to his $200,000-a-year job.

The revelations about Ferris’ and the authority’s spending habits may revive public scrutiny and provide his fiercest critics with more ammunition.  A few of the practices that the Cardinals called into question:

Business meals: Ferris, his staffers and board members charged more than 240 working breakfasts, lunches and dinners in the Valley for themselves, consultants, clients and business partners, totaling nearly $12,000.  Ferris’ charges included a $299 dinner for four at the classic El Chorro Lodge in Scottsdale and $11 for an after-dinner discussion at the Library Bar and Grill, a Tempe college hangout known for go-go dancers in schoolgirl outfits.

Free lodging: In February 2004, authority board members, Ferris and their lawyer traveled to Philadelphia to meet with Global Spectrum, one of the bidders vying for the stadium’s management contract. Global Spectrum paid for the authority’s lodging at the Rittenhouse Hotel.  Shortly thereafter, Global Spectrum won the contract.  The company again paid for lodging for Ferris and other staffers when they returned to finalize the deal.  Authority officials told Jones that they authorized the stadium manager to pay for lodging to level the playing field for bidders.  The authority apparently had allowed another bidder, SMG, certain “concessions” during authority tours of facilities it manages in Chicago and Houston.

Pheasant hunt: Hunt Construction, the stadium’s general contractor, had selected Daktronics Corp. in mid-2003 as the manufacturer and installer of the facility’s video boards and other equipment.  In October 2004, Daktronics paid for airfare, lodging and meals for Ferris, then-Chairman John Benton and board member Bill Peltier to attend the company’s annual plant tour and pheasant hunt in South Dakota.  The authority bars employee or board members from accepting any gifts. But Jones said that there is no gift violation when it comes to travel, lodging, food or beverage, adding that the Daktronics trip offered “no chance of preferential or opportunistic treatment.”

Hotel expenses: During 11 non-convention business trips, Ferris on average spent nearly 60 percent more than the maximum allowance for state employees.  During a March 2001 business trip to Las Vegas, Ferris and Benton each expensed $249 hotel rooms (before taxes) at the Venetian Resort, more than twice the state maximum allowance of $122 a night.  Jones wrote that because the authority is not a state agency, it’s not required to adhere to state travel policies.  The authority board, however, did adopt stricter travel standards following 2004 recommendations from the Office of the Auditor General.

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