Scrutiny into Fiesta Bowl could end in Junker’s ouster
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) – Fiesta Bowl officials are bracing for what could be a scathing report from an internal investigation of the event’s financial and political dealings, some of which may have skirted, or even broken, state and federal law.
The report, which could come out as soon as next week, is the culmination of a probe by a three-member panel that includes two Fiesta Bowl board members and a retired Arizona Supreme Court justice.
Fiesta Bowl President and Chief Executive Officer John Junker, who in two decades directed the once upstart bowl to the land of the BCS giants, was placed on paid administrative leave a month ago as the internal examination proceeded. The investigation is separate from a state attorney general’s probe into possible criminal violations involving political contributions by Fiesta Bowl employees.
Bowl officials probably are inclined to make the internal report public, except for any portions that the attorney general’s staff wants to remain private because of the ongoing criminal matter.
The affable, ever-present face of the bowl for two decades, Junker could face being terminated, depending on the board’s interpretation of the report’s conclusions.
Junker, who makes about $600,000 a year, took a noticeably lower profile this year, even though the Fiesta Bowl was responsible for one of the most highly anticipated games in bowl history, the BCS championship matchup of unbeatens Auburn and Oregon.
His administrative leave came amid a series of announcements that hinted at the seriousness with which the board of directors, which long had served as mainly a figurehead body that ceded major decisions to Junker, is taking this situation.
A week before the move on Junker, the Fiesta Bowl hired prominent Southern California attorney Nathan Hochman, whose specialty is representing people and organizations involved in criminal negotiations.
The bowl also announced it would no longer give free game tickets to members of the Arizona Legislature. It has severed ties with a lobbying firm and a security consultant, each of whom had been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by the bowl.
Persistent reporting by The Arizona Republic pushed the bowl into its exercise in self-criticism. The newspaper first reported in December 2009 that of 14 current and former bowl employees had made contributions, five said they had been reimbursed. Junker denied any reimbursements were made.
The bowl hired former state attorney general Grant Woods to look into the allegations. Woods’ review found “no credible evidence that the bowl’s management engaged in any type of illegal or unethical conduct.”
Now however, Woods – a Republican who is considering a run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Jon Kyl – has said he believes some of those who spoke to him might not have told the truth.
“Key people may have lied to me,” Woods told The Republic last month. “It’s one thing not to catch it, but it’s another thing if they were purposely trying for me not to find out.”
The Associated Press obtained Fiesta Bowl tax forms for 2009, necessary to maintain tax-exempt status, that included the eyebrow-raising figures that helped prompt the bowl’s board to get serious about its self-examination.
Chief among them were $508,776 in payments to Blue Steel Consulting, a security consulting firm operated as a side job by a Maricopa County sheriff’s lieutenant. The bowl also paid $286,206 to Husk Brothers, a lobbying firm, even though there was nothing before the Legislature that would have any significant impact on the bowl’s activities.
The Fiesta Bowl also raised the specter of excessive benefits.
“The board of directors has become aware that the organization may have engaged in excess benefit transactions with one or more disqualified persons,” it told the IRS. “The board of directors is currently investigating these matters and intends to correct whatever violations, if any, may have occurred and to take all necessary and appropriate steps to ensure that the organization operates in full compliance with all applicable federal tax laws.”
For now, the bowl’s status as one of the four BCS events is secure because three years remain on its contract. After that, the Fiesta could face a challenge from the Cotton Bowl, which has long sought a return to major bowl status and has a new stadium to support its cause.