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    Air Force looks at MacDill's Bowl role

    An anonymous complaint leads to an investigation of the base's use of taxpayer money for events related to Super Bowl XXXV.

    By DAVID KARP

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2001


    TAMPA -- The military promoted its Super Bowl party as a public relations bonanza.

    With the nation watching on television, the Air Force would get its name linked to the world's biggest sporting event, celebrities would mingle around MacDill Air Force Base and Latin pop star Ricky Martin would parachute onto the base for a concert inside an Air Force hangar.

    But now that the party is over, the Air Force Inspector General is investigating how MacDill supported Super Bowl XXXV with taxpayer money and government resources.

    A Pentagon spokeswoman declined Wednesday to offer specifics about the inquiry, which began when the inspector general received an anonymous complaint.

    "We take every complaint seriously, and we want to do our best to follow through," said Capt. Almarah Belk, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force.

    A team from the Pentagon spent last week at MacDill interviewing officials, Belk said.

    The Inspector General's Office is charged with evaluating the Air Force's efficiency and readiness. It typically roots out mismanagement, government waste and fraud.

    The team is expected to take several months to complete a report on MacDill's efforts to promote the Super Bowl. Then, the office could issue recommendations to the Air Force secretary on whether policies were violated, or money wasted. Or it could determine MacDill personnel did nothing wrong.

    Tampa's Air Force base became high-profile partners with the NFL when the Super Bowl came to Raymond James Stadium in January.

    Military spokesmen said the Super Bowl would help the Air Force reach a wide audience of 18- to 24-year-olds, prime recruitment targets.

    The Air Force helped sponsor the NFL Player's Golf Tournament on the base, the 2001 Winn Dixie NFL Players Kids' Golf Jam, the 2001 Campbell's NFL Players Super Shoot-Out Golf Tournament and Ricky Martin's Super Bowl Saturday Night concert, which was produced by MTV and broadcast by CBS.

    A huge military transport plane was stationed outside Hangar No. 3 during the concert, and celebrities such as Dan Rather, Tom Arnold and David Copperfield socialized on the tarmac as a swing band played. The Air Force provided the use of its hangar, arranged parking for 100 cars and 50 buses, set up three "green rooms" for celebrities, provided portable heaters and found 20 volunteers to help put on the event, according to an agreement with a Hollywood, Fla., company that helped plan the party.

    The military also established a security plan designed to prevent the public from crashing the invitation-only event.

    In exchange, producers gave the concert the theme "A Salute to the Air Force." Brig. Gen. Chip Diehl also got 30 tickets to the party, which he distributed to base personnel.

    The Air Force, however, did not charge a fee to lease its facilities or use its personnel.

    In response to questions from the St. Petersburg Times in February, an Air Force spokesman said the cost to the base was minimal. He did not elaborate.

    The military also flew aircraft over the Gasparilla Parade and the Super Bowl game, but officials said the flyovers also served as a training exercise.

    "Each time air crews fly, training is accomplished," Capt. Darren Berry, a MacDill spokesman, said last month.

    The base struck other deals with the NFL Players Golf Club, which paid the Air Force $40,000 to host events at the base golf course.

    In the months leading up to the Super Bowl, the base spent $180,000 to refurbish MacDill's golf course, but a Pentagon spokeswoman said Wednesday that the base had already planned to improve the golf course well before the Super Bowl. Belk said the base used money raised by the golf course, not government appropriations, to pay for the improvements.

    The Air Force also used $16,535 from the golf course fund to pay for items such as special event flags on the golf course, golf bag tags with a MacDill logo and tree trimming along the course.

    Officials with the NFL and companies that helped plan the Ricky Martin party for NFL Enterprises didn't know Wednesday about the inspector general's inquiry. They said they had not been contacted.

    "It's probably something to keep them busy," Jim Steeg, the NFL's senior vice president for special events, said about the inspector general's inquiry. "It sounds like they are (conducting) a fishing expedition."

    - Times staff writer Christopher Goffard contributed to this report.

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