The former chief operating officer of the Fiesta Bowl has been indicted on charges of filing false income tax returns for the bowl game, the first charges against a former official of one of the top national college football bowls and Bowl Championship Series member since a scathing report led to the firing of its president in March.
Natalie Wisneski, 47, also faces federal campaign finance and conspiracy charges over allegations she solicited campaign contributions from bowl employees for federal, state and local political candidates and arranged for the bowl to repay them. The U.S. attorney’s office in Phoenix announced the indictment Wednesday.
Wisneski resigned from her job in March, shortly after bowl president and chief executive officer John Junker was fired after the apparent campaign-donation scheme was made public.
The investigation into the Fiesta Bowl’s conduct under Junker is ongoing and the organization under its new leadership is cooperating. The Arizona attorney general is also involved in the probe, and an investigation into numerous state politicians who took free tickets from the bowl is also under way.
It could not immediately be determined if Wisneski has an attorney, and she did not immediately respond to a message left at her listed phone number. She will receive a summons to appear in court Nov. 30.
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 report of an investigation conducted by Fiesta Bowl board members and a retired Arizona state Supreme Court justice 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.
The bowl has asked the politicians, including U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl of Arizona, to return the contributions. Kyl and McCain instead gave the money to charity.
The report also uncovered spending of $33,000 for a birthday bash for Junker in Pebble Beach, Calif., $13,000 for the wedding of one of his aides and a $1,200 tab at a Phoenix strip club. The report outlined junkets and free football tickets for many Arizona legislators who had not revealed the gifts as required by state law.
The BCS fined the Fiesta Bowl $1 million in June and the NCAA placed it on probation for a year.
The Arizona attorney general’s office is investigating parts of the scandal not involving politicians. It sent the investigation involving state politicians to the Maricopa County attorney to avoid a conflict.
The indictment alleges Wisneski twice signed tax returns for the nonprofit bowl that stated it did not give money to political campaigns or pay for lobbyists, both barred practices for tax-emempt entities. She also allegedly collected political donations from co-workers and later wrote checks from Fiesta Bowl accounts to reimburse them.
The nine-count indictment also refers to “Officer A” and “Lobbyist C” collecting checks for politicians. The two remain unnamed, but nearly identical language is included in the Fiesta Bowl’s own report, referring to Junker and lobbyist Gary Husk.
Husk did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
The Fiesta Bowl hired University of Arizona President Robert Shelton to replace Junker in June, charging him with repairing the organization’s once-stellar reputation.
Fiesta Bowl attorney Nathan Hochman said the bowl “continues to fully cooperate with all federal, state and local investigations.” He would not comment about the indictment.