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John Junker, the former top executive of the Fiesta Bowl, pleaded guilty Tuesday to a felony charge over allegations stemming from a political donations scandal.
Junker entered his plea over soliciting political contributions from Fiesta Bowl employees. The bowl later reimbursed employees for about $48,000 over a nine-year period.
Junker was fired last year by the Fiesta Bowl and chief operating officer Natalie Wisneski also resigned.
According to a 276-page bowl investigation report, Junker was found to be the head of an "apparent scheme'' to reimburse at least $46,539 of employees' political contributions. The report also mentioned lavish spending by Junker with bowl money.
A state felony, the crime that Junker pled guilty to carries a presumptive 2 1/2-year sentence. However he is also eligible for probation or a judge could reject the deal and have discretion at sentencing.
Wisneski has pleaded not guilty in regard to her involvement in the scandal.
A former Fiesta Bowl officer has been indicted for making campaign contributions in someone else's name and filing false tax returns, among other counts announced Wednesday by the U.S. attorney's office.
Natalie Wisneski, the former chief operating officer of the Fiesta Bowl, was also indicted by a federal grand jury for causing false statements to be made to the Federal Elections Commission and for conspiracy.
The nine-count indictment was returned Tuesday and comes eight months after a task force uncovered evidence of serious infractions committed by the Fiesta Bowl.
The scandal cost longtime executive director John Junker his job and prompted the Bowl Championship Series to fine the Fiesta Bowl $1 million, though it was allowed to remain in the BCS and keeps its NCAA license.
Wisneski, 47, is alleged to have used her high-paying job to solicit campaign contributions from bowl employees for federal, state and local candidates and then arranging to reimburse the employees with Fiesta Bowl money.
The indictment says Wisneski, who also lost her job because of the scandal, filed false tax returns after denying that the Fiesta Bowl had any lobbying expenses or political expenditures.
She is the first Fiesta Bowl official to be charged and will be summoned to appear for arraignment on November 30.
For local perspective on the Fiesta Bowl mess, visit SB Nation Arizona.
The Fiesta Bowl barely made it out of the scandal caused by former CEO John Junker with its BCS affiliation intact. However, some Arizona politicians who received free trips or game tickets from the tax-exempt group still have questions to answer for.
The bowl has sent a letter of its efforts to Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery. Montgomery is investigating whether or not some lawmakers illegally received game tickets or gifts.
In the letter to Bennett, bowl attorney Nathan Hochman said the bowl is asking the politicians to document their participation "so that the Fiesta Bowl may have all salient information in determining which benefits, if any, were not in furtherance of the bowl’s tax-exempt purpose and therefore require reimbursement from the elected officials."
That list includes State Senate President Russell Pearce (received more than $39,000 in tickets, trips and other freebies), former Republican lawmaker Robert Blendu ($17,213 in freebies), and State Sen. Linda Lopez ($16,877).
Pearce allegedly went on Fiesta Bowl-sponsored VIP trips to other games in Denver, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Pasadena, Boston and Dallas.
Bowl lawyer Nathan Hochman explained in an interview with the AP that the main purpose of the letters is to comply with tax laws. The bowl maintains tax-exempt status.
The Fiesta Bowl announced on Wednesday its new executive director, University of Arizona President Robert Shelton. The previous leader, John Junker, was fired earlier in the year after it was discovered that he used bowl money in inappropriate manners, including political donations.
Shelton will have a tough job ahead of him when he attempts to rebuild the Fiesta Bowl's reputation. Though it is still a BCS Bowl game, there will likely be a stigma on the bowl for some time to come after the corruption of the previous regime was uncovered.
However, Shelton's contract avoids the perks that Junker received in his. Instead, Shelton's four-year contract provides him with $455,000 per year and "job performance incentives." When asked about the need for a playoff system in the college game, Shelton came out as a big supporter of the current setup since playoffs would interfere with academics.
Our Arizona Wildcats blog, AZ Desert Swam, expresses trepidation over this move:
Because he was so sports savvy -- Shelton was a member of the BCS presidential oversight committee -- the loss could be a hit to a sports department looking to make vast improvements to its facilities. [...] It [the search for a new president] comes at a scary and critical time for the athletic department. All the Wildcats can ask for is an equally understanding president who understands that sports aren't just a game. They're an attention magnet and a money-maker.
The search is expected to take a year while an interim president serves during the interregnum.
The Fiesta Bowl has been dodging bullets left and right this offseason and has survived the storm relatively scot-free. On Wednesday, the NCAA granted the Fiesta Bowl's license for 2012, though it did come with a probationary period. If bowl officials stay out of trouble and complete the requirements set forth, the Fiesta Bowl should live to fight another day.
The ruling, handed down for both the Fiesta and Insight Bowls, requires officials to meet with the NCAA Bowl Licensing Subcommittee in 2012 to present its progress report and detail the management changes put in place in the aftermath of this year's investigation. While the committee was troubled by the allegations, it was comfortable enough with the plan Fiesta Bowl officials presented to re-license it for this coming season.
"The subcommittee was greatly concerned with the apparent lack of oversight and integrity associated with previous Fiesta Bowl management," said Carparelli. "Considering the business model changes and new direction of the bowl, along with the actions from the BCS, the subcommittee felt comfortable with reaffirming the Fiesta and Insight licenses on a probationary status."
After all the investigations and allegations, the Fiesta Bowl is back and ready to rumble again as part of the BCS, as long as officials keep their noses clean while on probation.
For more local perspective on the bowl's future, visit SB Nation Arizona.
Fiesta Bowl organizers may not be the only ones getting slapped around in the legal system by the time the never-ending investigation into the game's bottomless well of corruption wraps up. As much trouble as bowl officials are in for cozying up to local politicians in exchange for favors, it's easy work to forget those receiving end of the cozying. No more, via the Associated Press:
An Arizona Senate Ethics Committee review found some lawmakers may have violated state law by improperly accepting free football game tickets from the Fiesta Bowl, Chairman Ron Gould said Thursday.
However, Gould told The Associated Press that he is temporarily refraining from taking further action because he doesn’t want to taint a criminal investigation being conducted by Maricopa County prosecutors.
The Arizona Republic points to two politicos (one Democrat, one Reublican) who appear to have had the most fingers in the Frito* pie: Tempe city councilman Ben Arredondo and state senator Russell Pearce. If their actions turn out to fall within the upper echelons of Arizona's conflict-of-interest law, the two could potentially face felony charges.
*Individuals (and individual bags) of Tostitos are not currently under investigation, as far as we know. Yet! Haha! For more local perspective on the bowl's future, visit SB Nation Arizona.
As expected, the BCS presidential oversight committee has decided to sanction the Fiesta Bowl following a lengthy investigation into hilariously widespread corruption among the game's organizers and connected politicians. And in even more predictable news, the bowl is getting off so easy that other BCS game organizations may well wonder whether they haven't been a little light-handed with their own bribes.
The Fiesta Bowl will cough up a fine of $1 million, an ominous-sounding number that's really about half of what UConn lost traveling to Arizona last January to get pantsed by Oklahoma on national television. Checks and balances in the form of additional administrators will also be installed, and overall everyone's just promising real, real hard to make sure this never happens again. And ... that's it. Ever feel like you're in the wrong line of work, gentle readers?
Still to come, of course, is the NCAA bowl licensing committee's decision on whether to credential the Fiesta, but the prospect of an eventual national championship game in the Cotton Bowl has dimmed, for the moment. Better luck next time, Jerry Jones!
Fiesta Bowl officials have cleared one obstacle in the gauntlet they're running to try and keep the now-legendarily corrupt game in the BCS rotation: Organizers met in Chicago over the weekend with a BCS task force to show penitence and apparently made a positive impression on the chair, Graham Spanier. A decision on the game's future could be just a few weeks away, and the options sound ... well, like nothing much:
Spanier said there was a range of possibilities, including expulsion to staying in the BCS for the Fiesta Bowl. He also said there were "some things in between," but he declined to elaborate. [...] It is unclear if the BCS has the legal authority to terminate the Fiesta Bowl's contract, which runs for three more years, and whether there is a "morals clause" to punish the bowl. And it is unclear if the BCS can intervene and break the Fiesta Bowl's contract with the Big 12 Conference.
So by "cleared," we really mean "Fiesta Bowl reps survived the meeting without bribing anybody, we think," but there's more tap-dancing to do: This ordeal is not to be confused with a second scheduled meeting with the NCAA licensing subcommittee in New Orleans at the end of the month. And you're going to be shocked, just shocked at the conflicts of interest already emerging there:
Nine of the 11 members of an NCAA panel that will help decide the Fiesta Bowl's fate attended a bowl-sponsored retreat that included free meals, resort rooms and golf outings. The nine names all showed up on a 2008 "Fiesta Frolic" attendee list obtained by Playoff PAC.
Anyone expecting a resolution on the Fiesta Bowl investigation by the end of April will need to wait a few weeks. The NCAA's Postseason Bowl Licensing Subcommittee has announced a delay in determining whether the Fiesta Bowl will continue as an NCAA-licensed bowl.
Fiesta Bowl committee members will travel to New Orleans to talk with the bowl licensing subcommittee during its April 27-28 review of bowl licenses. However, no decision will be announced then. Rather, one is expected to come toward the end of the spring.
Committee officials want to know how the Fiesta Bowl plans to conduct future bowls, while at the same time waiting for the bowl's independent investigation and the BCS' special report on the situation to be available. Once the committee has all three pieces in hand, it will then take a few weeks to reach a final decision.
Somewhat lost in all of this is that the Insight Bowl is run by the same group as the Fiesta Bowl is. Will the bowl be penalized as well if a negative ruling comes down on the Fiesta Bowl?
So you're a politician who accepted extravagant gifts and free travel from the Fiesta Bowl! Good on you. I mean that so sincerely. That sounds like one of the only fun parts of being a politician. Now, the Fiesta Bowl would like all their money back, please:
Lawmakers who took cross-country trips and accepted free game tickets at the Fiesta Bowl's expense will receive invoices in the coming weeks asking them to fully reimburse the bowl for those costs.
Attorneys for the Fiesta Bowl confirmed Wednesday that they are conducting an investigation to determine the bowl's total outlay on lawmaker gifts and travel so that it can seek reimbursement for those expenses.
I'm not sure I get the "why" here. Are there takebacks in corruption of this level? If the politicians in question repay the bowl coffers, is Bill Hancock going to act like none of this ever happened? Is it even legal for the Fiesta Bowl to attempt this? Think there's any legislator involved on the brink of retirement who'll tell them no just to be a curmudgeon? Being a curmudgeon with impunity sounds like the other fun part of being a politician.
Also, once the Fiesta Bowl gets all the money back, how much of it will be spent right back again to pay the lawyers they used to investigate and see how much money they spent? It's a beautiful cycle of nature, innit?
Because the initial report on Fiesta Bowl corruption wasn't laughable enough on its own, here are two new tidbits to giggle at over your mid-morning latte break. Both come courtesy of the Arizona Republic, and both defy credulity in their own special ways.
The first is that, in advance of the Fiesta Bowl officials pleading for their game's BCS life in front of NCAA officials, BCS director Bill Hancock has commissioned a task force charged with ... investigating the bowl's own internal investigation. It's unclear as yet how many of this committee's members have histories of accepting lavish gifts from game organizers.
The second piece of news this week involves the Republic's publisher resigning from the Fiesta Bowl board to avoid appearances of impropriety while the paper is investigating the bowl. This is why that is funny:
Zidich has said he joined the executive group to "make sure that what we were hearing about in the community, and on the pages of our newspaper, about possible problems, was dealt with with completeness and transparency."
Fiesta Bowl representatives are fixing to get called to the principal's office in just a few short weeks, when they meet with the NCAA's licensing subcommittee during the annual BCS meetings. Both sides are playing it cool, and there's every reason to think a reasonable compromise can be worked out to save face in an era where both the BCS and the NCAA need to look clean and orderly, but the potential consequences could be dire for the bowl in the event of a hammer drop:
[The] Fiesta could potentially have its four-year license revoked, though in the past licenses had only been revoked because of financial or attendance problems.
If the bowl organizers are hoping to keep a low profile between now and then and hope a Division I starting quarterback knocks over a bank or something to distract national attention, they might want to keep an eye on their political connections rapidly abandoning ship:
In the past week, eight state lawmakers have filed amended reports with the Secretary of State's Office or other local agencies, acknowledging that they accepted gifts in excess of $500 from the Fiesta Bowl and its representatives.
We look forward to meeting with the NCAA to answer any questions about the Special Committee report, and to discuss the new bylaws, policies and controls that the board of directors has put in place to prevent the activities described in the report from occurring again.
Final fun note: These meetings will take place in New Orleans. Wonder what kind of partying these cats will get up to?
Yahoo! Sports' Dan Wetzel, in case you had trouble parsing his book title, is out to get the BCS. This is fine by us, and it ought to be fine by the BCS administration, who've more than proved they can take care of themselves. Boy howdy, can they take care of themselves. But even the unflappable Bill Hancock has to be unnerved at this latest revelation by Wetzel: A member of the task force appointed to investigate the Fiesta Bowl finances has a history of accepting gifts from ... the Orange Bowl! Southern Miss AD Richard Giannini was in attendance at the Orange Bowl's notorious Royal Caribbean junket, profiled last winter by PlayoffPAC:
[The] BCS's Orange Bowl, which is organized as a public charity, used its charitable funds to treat Orange Bowl executives and college athletic directors to a four-day "complimentary getaway" aboard Royal Caribbean's Majesty of the Seas earlier this year. As shown by the detailed agenda, this Caribbean cruise was a junket. No business meetings were held. Attendees were instead occupied with full-day excursions to Atlantis Resort and CocoCay, a private island.
Really, for entertainment value of equal bias, they should've just gone ahead and appointed Jerry Jones.
The BCS, an entity that does not actually exist in the traditional sense, has asked the Fiesta Bowl to justify its standing as a BCS bowl in light of the findings published Tuesday by the bowl’s oversight committee. BCS executive director Bill Hancock has said, “The BCS group takes this matter very seriously and will consider whether they keep a BCS bowl game, and we will consider other appropriate sanctions,”
The shadowy organization itself released a statement on the matter, stating the bowl will be “closely monitored” in the future if it does retain its BCS status (via Idaho Statesman):
We are deeply disappointed and troubled to learn of these findings related to the Fiesta Bowl.
Unprofessional, unethical or improper behavior is unacceptable. There is no place for such activities in higher education or in collegiate sports. It is expected that all parties contracted with the BCS will live up to the highest standards. We do not wish to be associated with entities that believe otherwise.
The fact that Fiesta Bowl officials have turned a spotlight on their bowl’s activities is a sign that many individuals within the organization feel the same way. It is appropriate that the Fiesta Bowl conducted this investigation. The Fiesta Bowl volunteers and many others in the Phoenix area have worked hard through the years to build a tradition and provide lifetime memories for thousands of student-athletes.
Nevertheless, the BCS takes this matter seriously and will consider whether the Fiesta Bowl should remain a BCS bowl game or other appropriate sanctions. To make that determination, we are taking these actions:
1. We have appointed a task force to evaluate the bowl’s findings and its recommendations.
2. We have asked the bowl to demonstrate why it should remain a BCS bowl game. The task force will evaluate the bowl’s response, along with the full slate of reforms instituted by the bowl.
3. If the bowl remains a part of the BCS, its handling of this matter will be closely monitored going forward.
It is imperative that Fiesta Bowl officials take all necessary steps to fully address and correct the problems they have reported. The task force will begin its deliberations immediately.
The members of the task force are Chairman Graham Spanier, President, Penn State University; John Peters, President, Northern Illinois University; John Marinatto, Commissioner, Big East Conference; Wright Waters, Commissioner, Sun Belt Conference; Jeremy Foley, Athletics Director, University of Florida; Bob Bowlsby, Athletics Director, Stanford University; and, Richard Giannini Athletics Director, University of Southern Mississippi.
The Fiesta Bowl has fired CEO John Junker after a report by the Bowl's oversight committee found evidence of lavish spending, political dealings well beyond the scope of a non-profit organization, and inappropriate political donations made by employees of the Fiesta Bowl who were then reimbursed with bogus bonus payments.
In a report released on the Fiesta Bowl's website on Tuesday afternoon, the committee explained the firing was a result of three key instances of mismanagement that occurred during Junker's tenure.
• An apparent scheme to reimburse at least $46,539 in improper campaign contributions.
• A flawed initial investigation and an apparent conspiracy to conceal the reimbursement scheme from the Board of Directors and state officials.
• Unauthorized and excessive compensation, non-business and inappropriate expenditures and inappropriate gifts.
That "unauthorized and excessive compensation' and other inappropriate expenditures included paying to shuttle around Arizona politicians and throw private parties for them. The parties were not limited to politicians, however: Junker himself threw a $33,000 party for himself for his fiftieth birthday, flying his family and bowl officials to Pebble Beach at the Bowl's expense. The Bowl also covered wedding travel expenses totaling $13,000 for Junker's assistant.
The most entertaining expenditure and subsequent testimony surrounds Junker's visit to a Phoenix strip club where he and the security consultant for the Fiesta Bowl spent $1200 of the Bowl's money. This was his explanation (via the NY Times:)
According to the report, Junker explained to investigators: “We are in the business where big strong athletes are known to attend these types of establishments. It was important for us to visit, and we certainly conducted business.”
Big strong athletes do visit strip clubs, so it's hard to argue with that element of Junker's logic. There was evidently enough corruption elsewhere to dismiss Junker outright according to the Fiesta Bowl, with the organization now vowing to clean up its image through a series of internal reforms.
The Fiesta Bowl is reportedly under investigation for $38,000 worth of political contributions made by 14 bowl employees made since 2000. While there is nothing illegal about donating to politicians, the problem arises when (as is being alleged here) those who donated get reimbursed for their gifts.
Apart from that, the tax-exempt, ostensibly non-profit Fiesta Bowl has been under scrutiny for spending $4 million on lobbying to keep the game in the BCS rotation by hosting extravagant parties and shelling out gifts and freebies.
Now the IRS is reportedly getting involved in the bowl employees dealings, a development the organization will not confirm or deny. According to the Arizona Republic, the bowl group has hired high-powered Southern California-based attorney Nathan J. Hochman to defend the Fiesta Bowl as state and federal investigators continue looking into the group's financial and political dealings.
Amid all this turmoil, Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker is being placed on an administrative leave of absence. The organization seems to be cooperating with the investigation, sending out 1099 forms to current and former employees to file with their taxes:
In a related tax issue, the Fiesta Bowl recently informed current and former board members that they would be receiving a Form 1099 to account for benefits they received the past three to four years. Board members buy tickets to the football games, but they have received complimentary tickets to related Fiesta Bowl events and parking passes, which are considered income.
According to bowl spokesman Andy Bagnato, these forms are being sent out by the request of the group's accountants, not the IRS.
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