Tale of Fiesta Bowl is excess and greed

Associated Press
This Jan. 4, 2010 photo shows Arizona governor Jan Brewer and Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker on the sidelines during the 2010 Fiesta Bowl college football game in Glendale, Ariz. The Fiesta Bowl has fired its longtime CEO John Junker after a scathing internal report found "an apparent scheme" to reimburse employees for political contributions.  (AP Photo/Arizona Republic, Rob Schumacher)  ** NO SALES. MARICOPA COUNTY OUT **
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As birthday bashes go, it must have been one sweet affair. John Junker was turning 50, and no better way to celebrate than gathering up some buddies and heading to Pebble Beach for a few days of golf and toasts.

The bill was at least $33,000, but no one seemed to care. The Fiesta Bowl would pick up the tab, just as it always did.

Golf with Jack Nicklaus in Florida? Why not, if you can put it on the credit card and get the $110,000 reimbursed, no questions asked.

And then there was the night at the strip club — $1,200, all in the name of college athletics.

It was good to be one of Junker's friends. It was good to be a Junker employee.

It was even better to be Junker himself. The longtime president of the Fiesta Bowl operated it like a private ATM machine, rewarding friends, family and any politician who asked.

Need any more reasons to trash the BSC? Just read the 283-page investigative report that led the Fiesta Bowl's board Tuesday to take away Junker's ATM card. He was unceremoniously booted out the door, $600,000 salary and all.

The good ol' boys in Arizona turned on one of their own, if only because they had no other choice. The embarrassing excesses were documented throughout the report, all the way down to a $75 bouquet of flowers Junker sent to the director of honors admission at the University of Texas, where his daughter was accepted, at Fiesta Bowl expense.

The people running the BCS reacted with righteous indignation, threatening to kick the Fiesta Bowl out of their little cartel for being caught living large on bowl money. The same people who enjoyed lavish accommodations, fine dining and the best tickets to the BCS title game in Arizona barely two months ago didn't take long to pass judgment on the man who provided it all.

Organizers of the other BCS games, meanwhile, have to be feeling a bit nervous.

"This is not isolated conduct," said Matthew Sanderson, co-founder of Playoff PAC, a group formed specifically to try to bust the BCS. "A lot of the most troubling behavior was not revealed until the books were revealed at the Fiesta Bowl. Who knows what happens when we peel back the curtain at the Sugar and Orange bowls."

Sanderson's organization followed up on revelations by The Arizona Republic about a campaign donation kickback scheme at the Fiesta Bowl by filing complaints with the Arizona secretary of state's office and the Internal Revenue Service about possible illegal use of charitable funds by the ostensibly nonprofit Fiesta Bowl.

Sanderson, a campaign finance attorney in Washington, D.C., and a graduate of the University of Utah, admits he helped found Playoff PAC because his school was passed over by BCS bowls. But the more he studies financial documents from the four BCS bowls, the more the cause has evolved.

"We've kept going with this just because we've seen too much," he said. "We know this type of misconduct is inherent in a closed system run by a few for the benefit of a few."

Sanderson wants to know why the Sugar Bowl paid its director $645,386 in 2009, a year in which it received a $1.4 million government grant yet still lost money. He wants to know how the Orange Bowl could spend $756,546 on travel that same year, and another $100,000 or so on postage and shipping, all detailed in IRS 990 forms the bowls are required to file.

Good questions, all, and so far the bowls have answered them by declaring they are in compliance with all IRS regulations on non-profit groups. Though they must file federal tax reports as non-profits, they have broad discretion on how detailed those reports are, and neither bowl has opened up its books.

Under pressure, the Fiesta Bowl finally did, though even investigators who studied credit card receipts, expense accounts and other financial documents still had a hard time figuring where the money all went.

What was clear is that almost everyone with a connection to Junker was on board for a long ride on the gravy train. He handed out gold coins to workers, sent a former board member and his wife on a first-class, all-expenses-paid trip to Ireland and paid for both the wedding and honeymoon of his assistant.

Don't forget the $2,285 he shelled out on a new set of Nike golf clubs for himself, all the better to play the four country clubs he belonged to.

All on the Fiesta Bowl's dime, of course. One year Junker was reimbursed for an astonishing $770,865.858 in charges on his personal American Express card, and investigators said they couldn't figure out whether nearly half the $4.8 million he charged over 10 years was legitimate.

Until it all came crashing down, the personal fiefdom served both Junker and the Fiesta Bowl well. He got the bowl into the BCS, drew alumni of big-spending schools to spend hundreds of millions over the years in the Phoenix area, and made yellow sports jackets all the fashion in January.

Now it may be over for good. The Fiesta Bowl could be booted from its lucrative spot, replaced, perhaps, by the Cotton Bowl at the palace Jerry Jones built outside Dallas.

It's a shocking tale of greed, excess and entitlement in college sports. Almost enough to give the BCS and big-time college football a bad name.

As if that was possible.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org

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