Ex-Fiesta Bowl chief pleads guilty in donation scheme

By David Schwartz, Reuters

PHOENIX — The former chief of U.S. college football’s Fiesta Bowl pleaded guilty on Tuesday to charges stemming from a scheme to funnel nearly US$50,000 from bowl employees to political campaigns, prosecutors said. John Junker, former longtime Fiesta Bowl chief executive, pleaded guilty in Maricopa County Superior Court to one felony count of solicitation to commit a fraud scheme. Junker, 56, faces up to 2-1/2 years in prison when he is sentenced on April 26 as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors. Junker was fired last March over the donations and controversial spending after being the bowl’s public face for more than two decades. The ouster came following reports in The Arizona Republic newspaper in late 2009 detailing the contributions made to bowl-friendly local, state and federal politicians. Under the scheme, the employees would be solicited to make the donations and they would later be reimbursed for the exact amount in what was called “an employee bonus,” according to state prosecutors. “Junker knew the scheme was illegal and was aware that donor lists and campaign finance reporting documents would be falsified,” the Arizona Attorney General’s Office said in a written statement. Junker’s attorney, Stephen Dichter, could not immediately be reached for comment. Junker was responsible for helping lead the way as the once-modest game played in Tempe, Arizona, rose to national college football prominence. The Fiesta Bowl, now played in a stadium that is home to the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, plays host to the national championship game on a rotating basis. It packs an estimated US$230 million economic impact for the southwestern state. The bowl’s top status was called into question amid the scandal, but ultimately was kept intact by college football officials. Bowl officials changed top leadership and implemented new policies and procedures. Among those no longer with the bowl were Natalie Wisneski, former chief operating officer, who was indicted in November as part of the scandal. She has yet to face trial. Also on Tuesday, one former and one current top bowl official pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of making a prohibited campaign contribution.

Jay Fields, former marketing senior vice president, will pay a US$4,600 fine, and Peggy Eyanson, current business operations director, a US$4,500 fine, court officials said. Each would receive a one-year probation sentence under the plea deal.