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Pay to Play

Want a University of Arizona contract? Be ready to sweeten the pot

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Unless you're a racket run by the mob—think The Sopranos—hauling trash is mostly a mundane and odorous affair.

Yet sometimes life does imitate art.

That's what the city of Tucson discovered last fall when it bid on a contract to continue managing the UA's waste, as it had for the past 12 years. This time, however, the UA added a little sweetener: To be considered for the contract, haulers would agree to cough up a minimum of $100,000 toward a UA Athletics marketing "sponsorship."

In other words, no pay, no play.

The bagman here is IMG College, a private, international marketing outfit that has local offices right in UA's McKale Memorial Center, and helps put the "sponsorship" squeeze on outside vendors hoping to land university contracts.

Its website describes IMG as "the leader in capturing consumer devotion to college sports." But just how much "consumer devotion" the company has captured here remains an open question; more than a month after the Tucson Weekly requested details about IMG's involvement in numerous UA vendor contracts, we're still waiting.

However, we did obtain the document that scored each competitor for the garbage contract. Contenders included Saguaro Environmental Services, Friedman Waste Control Systems, the city and Waste Management Inc.

Compared to Waste Management, the city did fall short in a few areas, such as training and cost. But where Waste Management truly shined was in its slick marketing approach.

According to UA spokesman Johnny Cruz, such marketing sponsorships are never the top criterion in requests for proposals, or RFPs. Still, we're left to wonder whether these scores can be trusted at all, given that there was obviously another yardstick—a $100,000 minimum sponsorship—that muddies the evaluation.

"I've been in government for 25 years, and I've never heard of an RFP that stipulates a donation," says Judy Nadler, a former mayor of Santa Clara, Calif., and now a senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. "It really looks as if it was not a legitimate RFP.

"An RFP is a request for proposals for the job that you want to have done, period," Nadler says. "That little kicker for a donation of $100,000 is really out of bounds. It really looks very coercive."

Coercive and murky. The local IMG represents yet another of those opaque relationships between the UA and private fundraising organizations such as the University of Arizona Foundation. The nongovernmental status of these groups allows them to raise funds behind closed doors, and keep their books beyond the reach of public-records requests—and public scrutiny. Yet they are cheek-to-jowl with school officials on UA websites and on campus: IMG offices are right next to those of UA coaches and trainers.

IMG largely operates below the radar—or at least it did until it tried to foist itself into a contract involving the city, which is prohibited from making such donations with taxpayer dollars.

"We basically said to them, 'We're a public entity, and we can't make a donation or sponsor athletics in any way,'" says Cristina Polsgrove, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Environmental Services.

Ward 6 City Councilman Steve Kozachik works for UA Athletics. To avoid conflict-of-interest issues, he says he steered clear of the garbage contract. Nonetheless, he did get an earful about the donation request from his appointed member on the city's Environmental Services Advisory Committee. "He was ticked off about that provision, saying it excluded the city from bidding on it," Kozachik says. "I checked, and was told that somebody from the city challenged the requirement. And so—correctly, in my opinion—the university withdrew that as a selection criteria or requirement. It was not part of the award process."

After the donation requirement was dropped from the RFP, the contract went to trash giant Waste Management. Company spokeswoman Janette Coates wouldn't comment on whether Waste Management contributed the $100,000 minimum sponsorship.

Nor will you get an answer to that question from Ben Lorenzen, general manager for IMG's operation at the UA. "I'm not going to release the information on what (Waste Management) spent," he says. "And you won't be able to find that sponsorship in a public-records request."

But Lorenzen denies that IMG engages in coercion. "A lot of what we do is business-to-business relationships," he says. "If we are using your services, then we ask for a sponsorship. It is not a pay-to-play. It's an 'ask.'"

Councilman Kozachik questions that logic, since it shuts out municipalities and smaller businesses unable to pony up hefty amounts of cash. "If there are advantages to be gained in an RFP that some parties can take advantage of, and others can't, then I would consider those to be inappropriate selection criteria," he says, "even if they're just requests or suggestions."

Chris Kopach is the UA's director of facilities management. He says his department hasn't included donation requirements in past contracts, "but the business climate has changed."

Either way, he says, the garbage contract's donation requirement was pulled after a discussion with UA lawyers, "when it was determined that it was not appropriate, because the city is not required or cannot do that."

According to Kopach, the UA's trash service is put out to bid every three to five years. And he says he doesn't know whether Waste Management ultimately agreed to pony up the cash. "But everybody had a fair opportunity to bid, to provide a service as cost-effectively as possible." In this case, he says, the "city couldn't meet our requirements."

What specific requirements did the city fail to meet? "I'm not going to go into that," Kopach says.

Others contend that sponsorships weed out vendors who might not be up to the job. Among them is Ray Flores Jr., whose family owns Tucson's El Charro restaurants, and operates a food concession during events at McKale. "The UA is the only game in town," Flores says, "and we want to be there to support it. And if that requires a financial commitment, there's a premium to everything in life."

But the scope of these "premiums" remains unclear. So it goes in the increasingly shadowy relationship between the UA and its private fundraising organizations.

To Santa Clara's Nadler, this latest dustup simply fails the smell test. "It sends the message that they're not necessarily looking for the best waste-hauler," she says. "They're looking for the one who's willing to give them a bonus. And there is absolutely no place in government for that type of activity."

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