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Small Fine For Fiesta Bowl's Ethics Penalties Sends Wrong Message

Thursday, May. 12, 2011

A $1 million fine has been imposed on the Fiesta Bowl, following an investigation of serious ethical and legal “irregularities.” Before you think that is a huge penalty, read further.

The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) committee will allow the Fiesta Bowl to continue to be part of the lucrative bowl game business, with very few restrictions. In addition to the fine, the Bowl must hire a new executive director and remove all board members who were involved in “inappropriate behavior.” The organization will also need to conduct an annual audit and make supervisory changes in their existing audit firm.

“I think the message is, they have cleaned house and addressed their problems,” said BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock. Meanwhile, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office is conducting a criminal investigation, and the IRS is reviewing the non-profit status of the organization.

An investigative report details how the former chief executive officer John Junker regularly went on trips with his family, donated to charities, and used Bowl money for other personal uses. One especially outrageous expenditure was for Junker’s 50th birthday party, held at a Pebble Beach golf course. The board chair at the time attended the $32,188 event, although he maintains he never saw or authorized the party’s budget. A golf outing with a lobbyist held to conduct “very important and serious talks” cost the Bowl account more than $4,000. Golf outings were commonly known as the time for “long-range thinking.”

Although I am not a big football fan, I am a big fan of ethical conduct, especially when the questionable actions of the Fiesta Bowl governing board include alleged campaign finance violations, illegal expenditures, high-priced junkets with elected officials, and poor oversight.

College bowl games are big business. According to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, “The Fiesta Bowl is a signature sporting event and critical economic driver for our travel and tourism industry.” In fact, the state is estimated to make tens of millions of dollars each year from bowl proceeds.

But we are--or should be --talking about college football, about the athletic, academic, and character development of young men. Instead it all comes down to money. What kind of message is this sending to the athletes and their supporters?

I cannot help wonder how much politics and money had to do with the decision to keep the Bowl and have $1 million directed to youth organizations. The non-profits who operate the event have more than $22 million in net assets, and any profits are supposed to go to charity anyway, under current governing rules.

The blow to the state economy if the Fiesta Bowl was canceled would be significant. But the damage to the public trust by “looking the other way” is likely to lead to even more ethical lapses.

Tags: Arizona, ethics violations, Fiesta Bowl

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