PHOENIX (AP) — The Fiesta Bowl’s former top executive pleaded guilty Tuesday to a felony charge stemming from a political donations scandal that nearly jeopardized the bowl’s role as a regular host of college football’s national championship game.
John Junker entered the plea in Phoenix for his role in soliciting political contributions from Fiesta Bowl employees, a development that will likely help federal and state investigations into the scheme.
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.
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The bowl organization later reimbursed employees for the donations, which were made over a nine-year period.
The scandal led to the firing last year of Junker, the bowl’s longtime leader, and the resignation of Natalie Wisneski, the bowl’s chief operating officer. Wisneski was indicted in November on federal charges in the scandal. She has pleaded not guilty.
The Fiesta Bowl organization was spared the worst sanctions — the loss of the championship game, which it hosts every four years, and its NCAA license.
Two other bowl officials, Peggy Eyanson and Jay Fields, entered pleas Tuesday to misdemeanors in the case.
As part of their deal with Arizona prosecutors, Junker, Eyanson and Fields will not face any further criminal charges or civil lawsuits from the state. They must also cooperate with the state’s continued investigation into the scandal.
“There is an ongoing investigation, and it involves other potential targets,” Attorney General Tom Horne said at a news conference following the hearing.
Horne said he couldn’t discuss the investigation or name any other target.
Bowl lobbyist Gary Husk has also been the focus of federal and state criminal investigations. An independent investigation found that he participated in and coordinated the political donations reimbursement scheme.
Husk hasn’t been charged with any crimes and has denied any wrongdoing. His lawyer, Rick Romley, released a statement Tuesday calling Junker’s plea “the same pattern of self-serving behavior he showed for years” as the leader of the bowl.
“The buck never stops with Junker,” Romley said. “As the CEO of a community-based, nonprofit organization, John created a culture of deceit that allowed him to misuse upwards of $4.5 million.”
Junker pleaded guilty in Maricopa County Superior Court to a state felony, which can carry up to a 2 1/2-year prison sentence. He was reserved during the hearing, answering the judge’s questions quietly and bowing his head for much of the time the judge addressed him. He will be sentenced on April 26.
Eyanson and Fields each pleaded guilty to one count of making a prohibited campaign contribution. Both were sentenced to a year’s probation and must pay a fine of at least $2,500.
Fields is the former vice president of marketing for the organization. Eyanson is the director of business operations, and still works for the Fiesta Bowl.
Nathan Hochman, an attorney for the organization, said the Fiesta Bowl has full confidence in Eyanson because she cooperated with investigators and admitted wrongdoing early on.
Though Eyanson had to pay a price for it, “she went out of her way to fully and truthfully disclose what happened,” Hochman said.
Neither Junker nor his lawyer, Stephen Dichter, was available for comment after the hearing.
“Pursuant to plea agreements with the prosecuting agencies involved, Mr. Junker will continue his ongoing cooperation with them and their agents, as requested,” Dichter said in a statement released Sunday. “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.”
Junker plans to plead guilty to another felony charge in federal court, Dichter said in the statement. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office on Tuesday declined to confirm or deny a deal has been reached.
The Arizona Republic first reported the plea deal in Sunday’s editions. The newspaper 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. The results, released last March, led to the ouster of Junker and Wisneski.
Three months after Junker was fired, the bowl hired University of Arizona president Robert Shelton to lead the organization and repair its reputation.
“The Fiesta Bowl is bigger than a few individuals and has gained its stellar reputation through the hard work of thousands of honest volunteers over the last 40 years,” bowl Chairman of the Board Duane Woods said in a statement posted on the organization’s website on Tuesday.
The bowl is cooperating with the state attorney general’s office, and has taken steps to ensure the law will not be broken again, Woods said.