Audit alleges pay-to-play scheme at Big Fresno Fair

State auditors found the Fair required vendors contribute to its nonprofit foundation as part of their contracts.

An audit from the California Department of Food and Agriculture has come down hard on The Big Fresno Fair for improper practices, including an alleged pay-to-play scheme involving its nonprofit foundation. 

The report was a performance audit of the fair’s operations for 2020 and 2021. 


The big picture: Overall the suit identified 13 areas in the fair’s operations that contain reportable conditions, the most significant of which involves a pay-for-play scheme with the Big Fresno Fair Foundation. 

  • The California Department of Food and Agriculture required the 21st District Agricultural Association, which oversees the fair, to respond to each of the 13 issues. 

Go deeper: The audit found that the 21st District Agricultural Association improperly agreed to $554,843 in payments that were made to the Friends of the Big Fresno Fair Foundation from various contractors doing business with the association. 

  • Twelve contracts specifically included language requiring the contractor to donate funds directly to the foundation, effectively operating as a pay-to-play scheme.
  • The audit’s second finding revolved around the Friends of the Big Fresno Fair Foundation giving association employees cash and gift cards totaling $89,650, none of which were reported by the employees on their annual Statement of Economic Interests form. 
  • The audit also found that several employees improperly used state vehicles to commute to and from their homes and the fairgrounds while using gas paid for by the association. 
  • Other findings include improper purchases using association credit cards and using state funds to travel to Texas, a state to which California has banned travel using state funds. 

The fair’s response: In a written response to the audit, Big Fresno Fair Board president Terry Gonsalves said the board has already begun to make corrections to the identified issues. 

  • In response to the pay-to-play scheme, Gonsalves said the fair is awaiting legal review of how to move forward with the contracts and will not agree to such contracts in the future. 
  • “The District Board has worked with fair management to address, correct and incorporate changes necessary to ensure best practices are employed consistent with state requirements,” the 21st District Agricultural Association said in a statement.
  • “Additionally, the District Board will continue to review operations to ensure that it exercise the appropriate degree of oversight over the fair management, and will especially focus on the corrective measures put in place in response to the findings and recommendations of the recent compliance audit.”
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