Ex-Fiesta executive enters guilty plea

The Fiesta Bowl’s former top executive pleaded guilty Tuesday to a felony charge to settle allegations stemming from a political donations scandal.

John Junker entered the plea in Phoenix for his role in soliciting political contributions from Fiesta Bowl employees. The bowl later reimbursed employees for about $48,000 over a nine-year period.

The plea is part of an agreement with Arizona prosecutors in connection with the scandal that led to the firing last year of Junker, the bowl’s longtime leader, and the resignation of chief operating officer, Natalie Wisneski.

The Fiesta Bowl hosts college football’s national championship game every four years. The scandal nearly jeopardized the Fiesta Bowl’s role as one of the four top-tier national bowl groups. The organization was spared the worst sanctions – the loss of the championship game and its NCAA license.

A 276-page bowl investigation report found the ”apparent scheme” to reimburse at least $46,539 for employees’ political contributions. It also reported lavish spending by Junker.

Junker pleaded guilty in Maricopa County Superior Court to a state felony, which carries a presumptive 2 1/2-year sentence that’s also eligible for probation. A judge could reject the deal and would have discretion at sentencing.

”Pursuant to plea agreements with the prosecuting agencies involved, Mr. Junker will continue his ongoing cooperation with them and their agents, as requested,” Junker’s lawyer, Stephen Dichter, said in a statement. ”No additional charges arising out of Mr. Junker’s long tenure with the Fiesta Bowl will be brought against him by either the State of Arizona or the United States Attorney for the District of Arizona.”

The Arizona Republic first reported the deal in Sunday’s editions.

Wisneski was indicted in November on federal charges stemming from allegations about her involvement in the scandal. She has pleaded not guilty.

Bowl lobbyist Gary Husk has also been the focus of federal and state criminal investigations. Husk’s lawyer, Rick Romley, told the newspaper that Junker is only looking out for himself.

”He is so self-serving and he financially benefited himself,” Romley said. ”Now it looks like he will blame others to minimize his role. He was the president and CEO of the Fiesta Bowl.”

The Republic began reporting in late 2009 that the bowl had been involved in coordinating donations to politicians. An initial bowl review found no evidence of that, but it later called for an independent investigation released last March that led to the ouster of Junker and Wisneski.

The investigation also said Husk participated in and coordinated the political donations reimbursement scheme. Husk has not been charged with any crimes and has denied any wrongdoing.

Three months after Junker was fired, the bowl hired University of Arizona president Robert Shelton to lead the organization and repair its reputation. An attorney for the bowl has said the organization is cooperating with local, state and federal investigations and made substantial changes to prevent a repeat.