John Junker to plead guilty to felony

Updated: February 20, 2012, 2:22 AM ET
Associated Press

PHOENIX -- The former top executive of the Fiesta Bowl has reached a plea deal with Arizona prosecutors to settle allegations related to a political donations scandal.

Arizona Attorney General's Office spokeswoman Amy Rezzonico confirmed Sunday that John Junker will appear in court on Tuesday, although she said she was barred from providing details before the hearing.

Junker's lawyer, Stephen Dichter, said in a statement that his client plans to plead guilty to a single felony count in state court and another in federal court related to his role in soliciting political contributions from Fiesta Bowl employees who were later reimbursed by the bowl. The Arizona Republic first reported the deal in Sunday's editions.

The bowl reimbursed employees about $48,000 over a nine-year period.

A person with direct knowledge of the deal said others were also expected to enter pleas to state charges related to the scandal at the top tier national bowl that led to the ouster last year of longtime leader Junker and chief operating officer Natalie Wisneski. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the deal has not been filed in court.

The Maricopa County Superior Court has scheduled a hearing related to "the filing of direct complaints regarding the Fiesta Bowl investigation."

Wisneski was indicted in November on federal charges of filing false Fiesta Bowl tax returns, conspiracy, and federal campaign finance violations. The charges stem from allegations she solicited campaign contributions from bowl employees for federal, state and local political candidates and arranged for the bowl to repay them, and failed to disclose the donations in the nonprofit's tax returns. She has pleaded not guilty.

She is not expected to be among those entering state plea deals on Tuesday, the person with direct knowledge told the AP. Neither is bowl lobbyist Gary Husk, another focus of the federal and state criminal probes that were launched after the bowl issued a scathing report last March on the actions of the bowl's leaders.

The scandal at the Fiesta Bowl, which also hosts the national football championship every four years, put its role as one of the four top-tier bowl groups in jeopardy. But it avoided 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 found lavish spending by Junker.

The state felony carries a presumptive 2½ year sentence that is 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. 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," Dichter said in a statement.

The U.S. attorney's office declined to confirm or deny a deal has been reached.

Husk's lawyer, Rick Romley, told The Republic 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."

An independent investigation commissioned by the Fiesta Bowl said Husk participated in and coordinated the political donations reimbursement scheme. Husk has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crimes.

Junker was fired after the internal investigation was released last March. Three months later, the bowl hired University of Arizona president Robert Shelton to lead the efforts to repair its reputation. The bowl's lawyer has said it has been cooperating with local, state and federal investigations and made substantial changes to avoid a repeat.

The Arizona Republic began reporting in late 2009 that the bowl has been involved in coordinating donations to politicians. An initial bowl review found no evidence of that, but it later initiated a thorough review that led to Junker's firing and the resignation of Wisneski.


Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press

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