Fiesta Bowl chief: Excesses are over

BY foxsports • November 18, 2011

Excesses are a thing of the past at the Fiesta Bowl, its new executive director said Friday.

The bowl will no longer shower politicians and employees with lavish gifts or perks like all-expense trips to the Super Bowl, and gifts for athletes and coaches at its game will be more muted and strictly follow NCAA guidelines, Fiesta Bowl executive director Robert Shelton said in an interview Friday.

Shelton was hired to repair the bowl's image after former President John Junker was fired in March for allowing excess spending, an apparent illegal system of political contributions and an effort to cover up the problems.

Shelton spoke to The Associated Press in his first in-depth interview since taking the job in June.

The scandal jeopardized the bowl's NCAA license and its status as one of four bowls in the national college football championship rotation. But it has emerged with its role as host every four years apparently intact, although the NCAA placed it on probation for a year and the BCS fined it $1 million - to be given to charity.

Shelton said a new employee code of conduct has been enacted, new financial controls put in place and a fairer and more open way of distributing millions in charitable contributions from the nonprofit's coffers put in place.

''I think some of the excesses of the past - we're just not going to do that anymore,'' Shelton said.

Those excesses included extensive travel for Junker, wedding gifts for employees, and all-expense trips for Arizona politicians to games like the Super Bowl that had nothing to do with the Fiesta Bowl.

''We will continue to take our lumps - as we deserve,'' Shelton said. ''But we're going to also continue to emphasize that it's a new era, it's a new era of governance.''

Shelton, 63, resigned from his post as president of the University of Arizona in June to take the Fiesta Bowl job. He had served on the presidential oversight committee for the Bowl Championship Series, the system that determines major college football's national champion.

A 276-page report of an investigation conducted by Fiesta Bowl board members and a retired Arizona state Supreme Court justice detailed the ''apparent scheme'' to reimburse at least $46,539 for employees' political contributions. The political contributions were first revealed by The Arizona Republic.

The probe also found ''an apparent conspiracy to conceal the reimbursement scheme from the bowl's Board of Directors and state officials,'' according to the report released in March.

Junker was fired, and chief operating officer Natalie Wisneski, 47, resigned along with vice president of marketing Jay Fields.

Wisneski was indicted this week by a federal grand jury on charges of filing false income tax returns for the bowl game. She also faces federal campaign finance and conspiracy charges over allegations she solicited campaign contributions from bowl employees for federal, state and local political candidates and arranged for the bowl to repay them.

Federal and state investigations into Junker and others are ongoing.

Wisneski will make an initial appearance in federal court later this month. She did not return calls for comment after the indictment was announced.

Shelton sat on the BCS oversight committee when the Fiesta Bowl's report was taken up, although he recused himself from the talks because he was from Arizona. He said the bowl's internal report was considered accurate and thorough, and the oversight committee laid out requirements for the bowl to retain its BCS status.

''I feel very comfortable that we have met those requirements as laid out in the BCS report,'' he said. ''But I am not sitting back sanguine and saying we don't need to do anything more. We are going to continue to review our policies, our practices, and make sure that above and beyond whatever the BCS recommended we would be a first-rate, transparent (nonprofit) organization.''

The bowl has asked the politicians, including U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl of Arizona, to return the contributions. Kyl and McCain instead gave the money to charity. The Fiesta Bowl also sent politicians accountings of gifts they received, such as game tickets, and asked them to justify the expenses while implying the Internal Revenue Service would be notified.

Those actions angered many politicians, prompting calls to Shelton. But he said the bowl's board did it as part of its efforts to make things right.

Shelton said he knows he has a difficult job, mending fences, fixing years of moral lapses at the bowl and working to grow the franchise. He also knows the fallout from the Junker era will continue.

That's especially true in an era when athletes and coaches have become used to being wined and dined and receiving gifts from bowl game sponsors.

''My thought is we need to play in that game, but we need to be logical and rational about it,'' Shelton said.

''We're going to continue our hospitality. But you can give great hospitality without lavishing gifts on people. We're going to follow the guidelines of both the NCAA and the BCS. And I think what sets the Fiesta Bowl apart, isn't whether you get a watch, or whether you get to stay at the Biltmore, what sets it apart is all those people in yellow jackets that are there, all those volunteers, that are there saying `Oh, a glitch has occurred, we'll take care of it.'''

share story