Fiesta Bowl officials have been quiet in the aftermath of a scolding from the head of the BCS who wondered if Arizona’s scandal-ridden event is worthy of its status as one of the nation’s four elite postseason games.
Requests for a reaction were met with silence from Fiesta Bowl board chairman Duane Woods after BCS executive director Bill Hancock said the Arizona event must “follow the letter of the law” or face the consequences.
While the Fiesta Bowl put in place reforms it says will prevent the sins of the past, many negative headlines lie ahead as a BCS task force investigates and, more significantly, the Arizona attorney general’s office continues its probe of possible criminal wrongdoing involving reimbursements by the bowl for employee campaign contributions.
BCS officials challenged the Fiesta Bowl to persuade them that extravagant and improper spending behind the firing of longtime CEO and President John Junker will never happen again.
Otherwise, the BCS said it can kick out the Fiesta Bowl altogether. There are plenty of others eager to jump in.
“They know that if they want to do business with us, they need to follow the letter of the law,” BCS executive director Bill Hancock told The Associated Press. “If they fail to do so, they do it at their own peril.”
The Fiesta Bowl released an internal report on Tuesday that uncovered hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of dollars, in “excessive compensation, nonbusiness and inappropriate expenditures and inappropriate gifts.”
Arizona prosecutors are looking into possible criminal charges, focusing on accusations that top officials pressured employees into donating money to favored political candidates and then reimbursed them with bowl funds.
“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.”
Fiesta Bowl officials placed the blame squarely on Junker, who made $600,000 a year as the affable face of the organization. Over the past two decades, he led the upstart bowl from just another postseason game to one of the largest and most prestigious.
“I must say that the actions undertaken and orchestrated by John Junker and others are shocking and completely unacceptable,” Woods said. “Their actions, unfortunately, have tainted the stellar reputation that the Fiesta Bowl has worked so hard to maintain for more than 40 years.”
The Bowl Championship Series also includes the Rose, Orange and Sugar bowls, and draws tens of millions of dollars a year in television revenue, ticket sales and merchandise.
Frito-Lay, whose product “Tostitos” is the Fiesta Bowl’s title sponsor, said it was “disappointed” and was monitoring the situation.
The scandal rekindled long-standing criticism of the BCS, one of three organizations whose polls crown national champions. The others are The AP and ESPN/USA Today.
Matthew Sanderson, co-founder of Playoff PAC, a group advocating a playoff system to determine a national college football champion, accused the BCS of making the Fiesta Bowl a scapegoat.
“Any BCS effort to expel the Fiesta Bowl would be a hypocritical act, given the documented irregularities at these other BCS bowls,” he said. “And who’s to say we won’t find the same type of shockingly questionable behavior when the curtain is peeled back at the BCS’ Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl?”
He mentioned the Orange Bowl paid for a cruise for athletic directors, conference commissioners and members of their families. Among those on board last June was Southern Mississippi athletic director Richard Giannini, selected this week as part of the task force established by the BCS on Tuesday to investigate the Fiesta Bowl.
In a statement after his inclusion was criticized, Giannini said that while he felt there was no comparison between his open participation in the cruise and what went on at the Fiesta Bowl, he offered to withdraw from the task force.
“I was told that would be unnecessary,” he said. “I personally would never do anything to impugn the reputation of the NCAA or Conference USA.”
The Fiesta Bowl, played at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., is in the second season of a four-year deal to be one of the four bowls that rotate hosting the national championship game.
Tuesday’s report said the bowl spent $33,188 for a birthday bash for Junker in Pebble Beach., Calif., and $13,000 for the wedding and honeymoon of Junker’s assistant.
Of the $4.8 million charged to Junker’s American Express card over the 10 years he was president and CEO, investigators deemed less than half the expenses “appropriate.”
Junker picked up a $1,200 tab at a Phoenix strip club for himself and two others, including a sheriff’s lieutenant who worked for the Fiesta Bowl on the side. Junker wrote on his American Express bill that the meeting was for “security site planning.”
Junker took some or all of his family on 27 trips, the report said.
The Fiesta Bowl also paid for his membership in four elite private golf clubs, one in Oregon, one in Oklahoma and two in Arizona.
The scandal began to unravel when The Arizona Republic reported 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 — went to his office and told him that indeed the reimbursements had been made.
The bowl began another investigation led by a three-person panel headed by a retired Arizona state supreme court justice.
Most of their report centers on the contribution scheme, in existence since at least 2002, where top officials would strongly urge employees to make contributions to favored candidates, including Republican Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl.
The reimbursements were listed as at least $46,539.
Duane Woods has said the system violated state campaign finance laws and endangers the bowl’s nonprofit status.
“The lesson here really is that we placed too much trust in a single individual,” Woods said.