Playoff PAC keeps pressure on BCS

By Kelly Whiteside

USA Today

Published: Sunday, May 15 2011 7:35 p.m. MDT

Their office is online. Their budget, negligible. So in the big moneyed world of college football, how did Playoff PAC, a small group of young professionals, become a significant voice of opposition to the Bowl Championship Series?

"They've got their thing," Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive said. "I don't agree with a lot of the things they say; they extrapolate and draw conclusions in a hurry, but the First Amendment is alive and well. They're entitled to their view."

What began as a movement to change the system after undefeated Utah was left out of the 2008 BCS title game has developed into something larger. "There are too many things that are problematic separate from who gets to take home the trophy," said Matt Sanderson, a 2005 Utah graduate, and one of the group's founders. Though Utah has joined the BCS elite in the Pacific 12, Sanderson said Playoff PAC has "seen too much to let it go."

What began as a group of six 27-to-32 year olds has grown into an organization of about 30 lawyers and accountants who volunteer their time. Since its founding in 2009, the group has spent about $15,000, Sanderson said, with most of its funding going toward running its website, playoffpac.com.

"They've have had a measurable impact on the dialogue," said Danny Diaz, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee and Playoff PAC volunteer. "They have done it very effectively with nowhere near the financial support the opposition has."

For more than a year, Playoff PAC has focused on the unfolding Fiesta Bowl scandal. The Arizona Republic touched off the controversy in December 2009, reporting that Fiesta Bowl employees were encouraged to write checks to specific political candidates and were reimbursed by the bowl through bonuses. Shortly after that report, Playoff PAC asked Arizona's Secretary of State to investigate the allegations.

The end result: An internal report by the Fiesta in March detailed about $45,000 in reimbursements to employees for political donations, an apparent violation of federal and state laws. It also uncovered inappropriate spending, such as $33,000 for a Pebble Beach, Calif., birthday party for CEO and President John Junker (who was fired), $13,000 for the wedding and honeymoon of an aide, and a $1,200 strip club tab for Junker and two others.

A BCS task force determined on Wednesday that the Fiesta Bowl will keep its place in the BCS and pay a $1 million fine as well as being subjected to other sanctions.

"The Fiesta Bowl paid a $1 million fine, but got rid of John Junker's $700,000 annual salary and his massive expense account. I'd say the Bowl came out ahead on that transaction, wouldn't you?" Sanderson said Wednesday.

At first, Playoff PAC was a group of Sanderson's friends from law school (he graduated from Vanderbilt in 2008) and from Senator John McCain's presidential campaign, which Sanderson worked on. Now the group is comprised of graduates from BCS heavyweight schools such as USC and Texas. It also has turned to seasoned professionals for help with specific projects.

Marcus S. Owens, a former director of the IRS division that oversees nonprofit groups, and Joseph M. Birkenstock, a former chief counsel for the Democratic National Committee both signed a Playoff PAC complaint sent to the Internal Revenue Service against the Fiesta, Orange and Sugar bowls. The complaint, filed last September, claimed that the three bowls violated their tax-exempt status with excessive spending, such as the Orange Bowl's "Summer Splash" cruise to the Bahamas for athletic directors and conference commissioners, and their spouses. The bowls contend they are in complete compliance with IRS guidelines.

Sanderson said five tax attorneys and a CPA spent about 80 hours wading through a few thousand pages of public documents to research the complaint. "This is not my day job," said Sanderson, an election law attorney who works mainly with Republican candidates for Washington, D.C.-based firm Caplin & Drysdale and also the father of three young children. "This is just a time-consuming side project."

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