March 13, 2014: Former Fiesta Bowl executive director John Junker leaves a courtroom in Phoenix after being sentenced to eight months in prison.
Michael Schennum, The Arizona Republic/AP
Prosecutors explain weakness in Fiesta Bowl cases
- Article by: JACQUES BILLEAUD
- Associated Press
- March 20, 2014 - 4:50 PM
PHOENIX — The sentencing of the former Fiesta Bowl chief executive marks the end of criminal cases arising from a scandal that led to guilty pleas by six bowl employees but only one prison sentence.
Former bowl leader John Junker was sentenced Thursday in state court in Phoenix to probation for his acknowledged role in an illegal campaign contribution scheme. A week ago, he was sentenced in federal court to eight months in prison on a conviction arising from the scandal in which bowl employees made illegal contributions to politicians and were reimbursed at least $46,000 for the donations.
The scandal exposed the lavish spending and perks that the Fiesta Bowl heaped on lawmakers and employees, but the investigation ended without any criminal charges being filed over those perks. And a former lobbyist who was implicated in the campaign finance case by Junker wasn't charged with any crimes related to his work for the bowl. The lobbyist pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in a similar campaign finance reimbursement scheme that involved his own business.
Nearly 30 lawmakers received free football or other tickets, and some got all-expense-paid trips from the bowl, but prosecutors declined to bring any charges against them. County Attorney Bill Montgomery has said the law covering legislator freebies was so vaguely written that he had no case. He recommended that the Legislature rewrite the law, but nothing was ever done on the matter.
Junker's spending came under scrutiny during the scandal. He received cars, four high-end country club memberships, a $33,000 birthday party in Pebble Beach, Calif., and a $1,200 for a trip to a strip club, among other benefits from the Fiesta Bowl.
Matthew Conti, who prosecuted Junker in state court, said prosecutors concluded that there wasn't enough evidence to convict Junker of criminal wrongdoing in his spending at the bowl. Conti said Junker had broad spending discretion and that the bowl's board would likely have approved any of his expenditure requests — as excessive as they might have been.
Conti said he believes lobbyist Gary Husk was probably the person who recommended to the bowl that employees' political contributions be reimbursed, but prosecutors didn't have enough evidence to prove it in court. "Did it come from Junker?" Conti asked. "Did it come from other people? Or did it come from Husk? And so that was the problem."
Junker attorney Stephen Dichter maintains that the leader of the scheme was the lobbyist, not Junker, and that the bowl CEO wasn't deeply involved in the day-to-day operation of the scheme. At Junker's sentencing Thursday, Dichter questioned why the lobbyist hadn't been charged in the Fiesta Bowl scheme.
Husk said Junker had acknowledged in a June 2012 interview with investigators that he was solely responsible for the scheme.
"I was thoroughly investigated for four years, and I was vindicated regarding the Fiesta Bowl, pure and simple," Husk told The Associated Press.
Throughout much of his sentencing hearing Thursday, Junker bowed his head. When speaking to the judge, Junker said he has felt deep sorrow for what he has done and that he accepted responsibility for his poor judgment. "This period of my life has been a nightmare, deservingly," Junker said.
Junker, who has already paid a $25,000 fine to the Federal Elections Commission and $62,000 in restitution, was ordered Thursday to pay an additional $36,000 fine.
Junker was fired as leader of the bowl in March 2011. He now works for the Catholic charity St. Vincent de Paul's and makes an annual salary of less than $50,000, compared with his $600,000-a-year pay at the Fiesta Bowl. His duties at the charity have included managing its thrift store.
Four other bowl employees were convicted of a state misdemeanor of making a prohibited campaign contribution, and the bowl's former chief operating officer pleaded guilty to a federal felony conspiracy charge. All five were sentenced to probation.
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