UNSUPPORTED BROWSER
College Football

Confessions, cover-ups and carte blanche: Inside the Fiesta fiasco

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- She is a good person, but not a saint. Like at least 11 of her colleagues at the Fiesta Bowl, Kelly Keogh was reimbursed for checks she wrote to state and local politicians, a potential felony. Later, when an investigator asked her about those contributions, she didn't tell the truth.

But Keogh, a 32-year-old executive assistant, earned a measure of redemption one morning late last September. She'd driven the five miles from the Fiesta Bowl's headquarters on East Camelback Rd. to the workplace of Duane Woods, who eight months earlier had been elected Chairman of the Board of the Fiesta Bowl, a volunteer position. Woods didn't know it at the time, but his day job as a senior vice president for Waste Management, Inc. would serve him well in the turbulent months to come.

After dropping off some documents to be signed, Keogh asked to speak with Woods in private. "I said, 'Sure, come back and talk in my office.'" Woods recalls. "And she just unloaded."

In December 2009, The Arizona Republic had published a story detailing a scheme in which some Fiesta Bowl employees had been encouraged to write checks to specific political candidates and were then reimbursed for those contributions. After conducting an investigation that was later revealed to be rushed and deeply flawed, the former Arizona attorney general Grant Woods (no relation to Duane) announced that he'd found "no credible evidence" to support The Republic's claims. The story began fading away.

Then Keogh paid a call to Duane Woods. "Look," he recalls her saying, "There's something you need to know. It's very apparent to me that you don't know what's going on, and that you're being used."

For the next hour, Keogh unburdened herself. She told Woods that she'd made contributions and been reimbursed and that this had long been a routine practice in the office. She detailed how a lobbyist would come by to pick up the checks, and how she and her colleagues would be reimbursed shortly thereafter. She told Woods about inappropriate expenditures billed to the bowl by its CEO, her direct boss, John Junker.

Junker's days as the glad-handing, back-thumping, favor-dispensing face of the Fiesta Bowl were now numbered, and the landscape of college football would soon by altered, due in large part to Keogh's act of moral courage.

"She felt guilty -- she'd been carrying a lot of weight on her shoulders," says Woods, who thanked Keogh for her forthrightness and told her he would act on this knowledge.

And act he did.

Woods called an emergency meeting of the Board's Executive Committee, which formed a "Special Committee" charged with conducting a second, more comprehensive investigation. Working with several independent professional investigators, counsel for the Special Committee debriefed 52 individuals -- some on multiple occasions -- over a four-month period. The product of its investigation, a 276-page report made public on Tuesday, is a damning read: Junker, on paid leave since February 14, was fired the day it came out.

The misdeeds the report chronicles fall into three broad categories: the aforementioned political contributions and reimbursements; the subsequent attempts to cover them up; and the extravagant, inappropriate expenditures by Junker and a few others. Those charges range from the quotidian (Junker bills the bowl $75 for flowers sent to an admissions officer at the University of Texas, where his daughter is applying) to the curious (Junker writes a check for $2,934 to a medical provider called the Hammer Institute for human growth hormone) to the unbelievably profligate ($65,000 in October 2008 to fly various legislators and their families to Boston for a Boston College-Virginia Tech game).

As a co-worker of Junker's puts it, "John did, kind of, whatever he wanted."

While Junker declined SI.com's request to be interviewed for this story, his lawyer, Stephen M. Dichter, could not resist issuing an e-mailed reminder that it was his client "who took the Fiesta Bowl from a postseason game created so [that] Frank Kush's ASU Sun Devils would have a game in which they could be showcased while they and the rest of the WAC were completely ignored by the national media to its present position as one of the four pillars of the Bowl Championship Series."

Junker, more than anyone else, deserves credit for growing the Fiesta Bowl from its humble origins. By dispensing lavish gifts, picking up meals and flying cronies and pals to football games, he made the Fiesta Bowl's strident yellow blazer synonymous with hospitality. In so doing, according to various current and former bowl employees, he consolidated near-absolute power within the organization and began treating the bowl that paid him $688,000 last year as his own personal ATM. "The danger of building a business around hospitality," notes Duane Woods, "is that the very genius that got you there might also bring you down."

Natalie Wisneski recalls that Gary Husk's Tempe home was decorated for the holidays when she paid him a visit in December 2009. But as the bowl's report makes clear, there was nothing cheerful about the subject they were about to discuss. Husk, the Fiesta Bowl's top lobbyist, had learned that The Republic was about to run a story on illegal political reimbursements. Wisneski, then the bowl's CFO and Junker's closest confidant in the office, had been invited to Husk's house, she told investigators, so they could prepare for an internal investigation the bowl was about to conduct -- the probe headed up by Grant Woods.

"We're going to go through a list of questions and I want you to answer them," Husk allegedly told Wisneski as they sat at his dining room table.

When Wisneski gave an answer, Husk countered, "Why don't you answer it this way."

Soon, Wisneski was in tears. "I didn't want to do this," she recalls. "It was enough, and I kind of had a breakdown, and I said, 'I just want this to go away.' And I was upset.

"And [Husk] said, 'If you don't do this, it won't go away,'" says Wisneski, who, despite those tears, is not a completely sympathetic figure in this story. Her complicity in the reimbursement scheme, and others, led to her resignation late last week.

During his interview with investigators, Husk insisted that Wisneski did visit him at home, but only to vent to him about "how difficult it was" to work with Junker.

(Before releasing a statement on Tuesday describing the accusations against him as "not credible," Husk declined to be interviewed by SI.com. He wasn't alone. With the possibility of criminal prosecution looming -- the Arizona Attorney General's office is well along in an investigation of its own -- most of the people named in the report have secured counsel, and have no comment.)

That pre-Christmas meeting between Wisneski and Husk was the first in a series of similar stories detailed in the report. Six other Fiesta Bowl employees, five of them female, describe Husk's efforts to either prepare them or weed them out before questioning from Grant Woods. Each accusation is followed by Husk's steadfast denial, mixed with his lawyer's assaults on the accusers' credibility:

Kelly Keogh's and Monica Simental's cubicles are 20 feet apart, significant, according to Husk's lawyer, "given the similarities of [their] allegations..."

"Gary did not know Ms. Eyanson well enough," to let her in on a cover-up.

"My client has no recollection of meeting with Ms. McGlynn..."

In response, investigators produced an e-mail sent by Husk on Dec. 14. In it, he requested brief, "private" meetings with Keogh, Simental, Eyanson and McGlynn.

As detailed in the report, those meetings with Husk took place in "the library," a wood-paneled nook lined with football books and memorabilia. That room also happened to adjoin Junker's office, accessible through a sliding door that has since been sealed.

Grant Woods conceded recently that his investigation was a "seat of the pants" operation for which he was only given, "like, three days." Woods was paid $55,000 for his efforts, $20,000 of which he passed along to participant Husk, his former chief of staff at the Attorney General's office and a man he'd endorsed in Husk's failed 1994 Senate bid.

The investigation Woods completed just before Christmas 2009 -- which produced his proclamation of "no credible evidence" of wrongdoing -- consisted of brief sit-downs with two former Fiesta Bowl employees and seven current ones. The report makes clear that Woods failed to undertake the simplest investigative step of all: comparing political contribution records with the bowl's bonuses or reimbursements.

Current Chairman Duane Woods struggles with the idea that he should have been watching Grant Woods more closely.

"When you sit on a nonprofit board," Duane Woods said Monday, "your reliance on your experts and your professionals is pretty high. We had an independent, very good law firm representing us, you've got the former attorney general of the state, you've got Price Waterhouse, our auditors, who interviewed Grant Woods afterward, and you've got a former CFO of a public company [former in-house financial guru Stan Laybourne] telling you these reimbursements never happened. All that meant something to me."

And Grant Woods' hefty paycheck? "I didn't know how much he was compensated until the Special Committee told me."

Should someone on the board have asked? "For the Executive Committee to sit there and go 'How much will he make an hour and how many hours will it take for him to get it done?' It just wouldn't have been the nature of that conversation. The key was, this needs to be done."

Once it was done, Duane Woods and the rest of the bowl's brass stood by Grant Woods' inquiry and defended their leader -- to an embarrassing degree, in hindsight. Alan Young, the Chairman at the time, praised "the outstanding leadership of John Junker."

Prodded last summer by Playoff PAC, a Washington, D.C.-based committee devoted to the abolition of the BCS, the Arizona Secretary of State turned its attention to the rushed probe conducted by Grant Woods. When the Secretary of State encouraged Arizona's new Attorney General to look into the matter, Duane Woods expressed his and the bowl's disappointment "that the Secretary of State wasted our time."

He felt that way right up until the moment, two months later, when Keogh walked into his office.

Bourbon Street is a tourist attraction in New Orleans, but it is also the name of a Phoenix strip club, a windowless, rectangular building just up the street from the Eastside Baptist Church, whose marquee last Monday night read Shock your Mom, Go to Church.

It came as a shock to many to learn that, on the night of Sept. 12 2008, the overtly religious Junker -- known for his contributions to Catholic causes -- racked up over $1,200 on his American Express card at Bourbon Street. "In all likelihood," the CEO told investigators, at least some of those charges were for private dances.

Rather than express contrition, rather than admit that it showed poor judgment to spend a charitable organization's money on strippers, Junker doubled down: "We are in the business where big strong athletes are known to attend these types of establishments," he told investigators. "It was important for us to visit and we certainly conducted business."

This brazenness runs throughout the report, which paints the portrait of a man whose self-importance is exceeded only by his sense of entitlement. To wit:

• In May 2005, Junker and a handful of bowl employees and board members flew to Pebble Beach, Calif., for a four-day bacchanal celebrating the CEO's 50th birthday. Total cost to the bowl: $33,189.

• Every year, the Fiesta Bowl spent tens of thousands of dollars to fly a group of state legislators -- often accompanied by their families -- to an out-of-state football game. The purpose of these trips? To "educate and provide information," former Board Chair Mike Allen told investigators, and help attendees "learn what college football is like." More plausible is the comment from Christine Martin, the bowl's Director of Team Services, who says of the trips, "They aren't necessary at all."

• While he couldn't always provide airfare, Junker was eager to provide elected officials with free tickets to marquee games. State Senator Russell Pearce was a frequent beneficiary, accepting over $5,000 in tickets from the bowl between 2007 and '08.

• Junker paid $110,000 at a 2003 charity auction to fly to Florida with former board member Chuck Johnson to play golf with Jack Nicklaus. In defending the trip, Junker told investigators that it was important for the bowl's relationship with the SEC.

• At the time of Junker's termination, the bowl was paying nearly $19,000 a year for Junker's memberships at four golf clubs, two of which are out of state: the Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club, near Portland, Ore., and Karsten Creek in Stillwater, Okla. Why Oregon? The rising fortunes of the football programs at Oregon and Oregon State, Junker explained to investigators. (The report also notes that he has family in the state.) Why Stillwater? The report paraphrases Junker's reply: Because it was a "visible but reasonably inexpensive way to support Oklahoma State University, a critical supporter of the Fiesta Bowl in the Big 12 conference."

During their interviews, the report notes, none of the board members were aware that Junker had four golf memberships and that the bowl was paying for all four.

How does that happen? How was Junker able to keep Duane Woods and the rest of the board in the dark? How, for instance, does a $33,000 birthday celebration fail to raise red flags?

"I know there will be skeptics," Woods says, "but we all lead pretty busy lives."

Never again, promises Woods and his chastened colleagues, who on Tuesday unveiled reforms which, they hope, will earn back "the public trust and integrity."

They don't need to worry about "the public" so much as a congenial, bespectacled gentleman in Kansas City. Bill Hancock, executive director of the BCS, wasted little time following the release of the Special Committee's report, distancing his organization from the now-tainted Fiesta Bowl.

In a statement expressing their "deep disappointment," Hancock and Graham Spanier, chair of the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee, tut-tutted that "parties contracted with the BCS" are expected to uphold "the highest standards. We do not wish to be associated with entities that believe otherwise."

The Fiesta Bowl's association with the BCS -- its status as a venue for future national championship games -- is now in doubt. The BCS has taken the unprecedented step of requiring the bowl "to demonstrate why it should remain a BCS bowl game."

If the Fiesta fails to do so and is demoted, which bowl might take its place? The clear leader at this point is the Cotton Bowl, which has long yearned to regain its status as a top-shelf bowl and now brings to the table a highly desirable venue, the palatial, two-year-old Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Such a fate would be a cruel blow to the many Fiesta bowl employees and the thousands of volunteers who've done nothing wrong.

It would also be a sad denouement to the career of Junker, who lifted this bowl from its humble beginnings but now threatens to drag it down with him.

More College Football

SI.com

Drag this icon to your bookmark bar.
Then delete your old SI.com bookmark.

SI.com

Click the share icon to bookmark us.