Post-scandal Fiesta Bowl must justify place in BCS

Posted March 30, 2011, at 9:54 p.m.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The Fiesta Bowl ejected its chief executive amid corruption allegations and now faces a new challenge: convincing the BCS to let it stay in the lucrative bowl system used to crown a national champion.

If Fiesta Bowl officials can’t, BCS executive director Bill Hancock says the organization has no problem booting them.

“We will not do business with people who do business like that,” Hancock said. “We just will not be associated with this kind of behavior.”

Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott added: “We want to send a clear and very strong signal to the public about the standards and values (that) the conferences that make up the BCS stand for.”

The Fiesta Bowl released an internal report that uncovered “excessive compensation, nonbusiness and inappropriate expenditures and inappropriate gifts” and fired longtime CEO and President John Junker.

The BCS has set up a task force to help determine if the leaders of major college football want to continue doing business with the Fiesta Bowl. It is in the second year of a four-year deal to be part of the BCS.

The BCS is one of three organizations whose polls crown national champions, the others being The Associated Press and ESPN/USA Today.

The reimbursements, listed as at least $46,539, are an apparent violation of state campaign finance laws and the charter that allows the Fiesta Bowl its nonprofit status. Arizona state prosecutors are also conducting a probe.

The Fiesta board unanimously fired Junker “for his improper and inappropriate activities documented” in the report.

“The entire Fiesta Bowl family is angered and disappointed by what we’ve seen in the report and by the actions of Mr. Junker,” board chairman Duane Woods told reporters at the event’s headquarters in downtown Scottsdale.

“The Fiesta Bowl is greater than a few individuals, and the lesson here really is that we placed too much trust in a single individual,” he added. Woods did not take questions.

Junker, in his ubiquitous bright yellow Fiesta Bowl sports jacket, had been the face of the game for three decades, leading it from an upstart event to one of the BCS giants. The others are the Rose, Orange and Sugar bowls.

The Fiesta, which also operates the Insight Bowl and many other smaller events, staged the highly anticipated matchup between Auburn and Oregon for the national championship this year.

With an annual salary of about $600,000, Junker had been on paid administrative lead since Feb. 4 after, the board said, he failed to comply with two written directives to cooperate with the investigation.

Junker’s attorney, Steve Dichter, said via email that his client did not have access to the report before it was made public. He said the document was being studied before it was determined whether Junker would have a comment on it.

The 276-page report of an investigation conducted by Fiesta Bowl board members and a retired Arizona Supreme Court justice was published on the bowl’s Web site fiestabowl.org.

The investigators said they found the “apparent scheme” to reimburse at least $46,539 for employees’ political contributions.

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 news release accompanying the report.

Woods outlined the timeline that began with a report in The Arizona Republic in December 2009 that five former or current Fiesta Bowl employees had been reimbursed for political donations they were encouraged to make.

A brief investigation by former Arizona Attorney General Grant Woods, no relation to the board chairman, led to the conclusion that there was no credible evidence to support the allegations.

Now the board says that report was “flawed.”

Duane Woods said that last September, an employee — identified in the report as Junker’s executive assistant, Kelly Keough — came to his office and told him that indeed the reimbursements had been made.

That led to the lengthy probe resulting in Tuesday’s report.

Among the many expenditures questioned by the report was the 50th birthday celebration for Junker paid for by the Fiesta Bowl at a cost of $33,0000 at Pebble Beach, Calif., his car allowance. and paid membership in four elite private golf clubs. There also was a $1,200 trip for Junker and two others to a Phoenix strip club.

Dichter said the panel did not ask Junker about the birthday party. He said he had nothing to do with paying for it, that it was done by another employee at the time. Junker’s attorney provided The Associated Press with the transcripts of the now-ousted CEO’s interview with the investigators.

The reimbursements go back to at least 2002, the report concluded. The political donations, mostly to Republican candidates and causes, were not required but strongly suggested, several employees told the investigators.

According to the report, when the initial investigation was made following The Republic’s story, lobbyist Gary Husk helped guide Woods away from those who had actually been given reimbursements and prepped others who were interviewed on what to say.

The Husk Brothers lobbying firm was paid $286,000 by the Fiesta Bowl in 2009, according reports filed by the IRS.

The board announced a series of steps to reform its operations and operate transparently to prevent any repeat of such problems. That includes hiring a chief financial officer and a general counsel/compliance officer.

The bowl has three years left on its four-year BCS contract, but that might not protect it from the possibility of being booted off college football’s biggest stage.

Other bowls are eager for a chance to hold the highly lucrative national title game.

The Cotton Bowl, for example, is played at the Dallas Cowboys’ lavish new stadium, and bowl officials have never hidden their desire to return to elite bowl status.

Cotton Bowl President Rick Baker declined comment through a bowl spokesman.

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