Former Fiesta Bowl COO enters not guilty plea


Associated Press

Posted on November 30, 2011 at 11:00 AM

Updated Thursday, Dec 1 at 7:06 AM

PHOENIX (AP) — The lawyer for the former chief operating officer of the Fiesta Bowl lashed out at federal prosecutors Wednesday for indicting his client but failing to bring charges against the bowl's former president and a lobbyist for the organization.

Attorney James Burke, who represents ex-COO Natalie Wisneski, said after her initial court appearance that he couldn't understand why former President John Junker and lobbyist Gary Husk weren't also in court.

"They are the guilty ones in this and I can't understand why they haven't been indicted," Burke said of Junker and Husk after Wisneski pleaded not guilty to the charges against her. "She's being held out there and it's just not right."

Wisneski is charged with helping run a scheme where campaign donations for state, local and federal politicians were solicited from bowl employees, and the bowl later reimbursed them. She's also charged with conspiracy and filing false income tax returns for the bowl by certifying that the nonprofit had no expenses for political contributions or lobbying.

Her co-conspirators are identified in her nine-count indictment as "Officer A" and "Lobbyist C." The two remain unnamed, but nearly identical language is included in the Fiesta Bowl's own 276-page report on the scandal, referring to Junker and Husk, an attorney who was a public affairs consultant and lobbyist for the bowl.

Calls to Junker's attorney and to Husk were not immediately returned Wednesday afternoon.

"They are the ones who orchestrated the scheme," Burke said of Junker and Husk. "Natalie had nothing to do with that. She's being unfairly singled out."

Wisneski cooperated with an internal investigation conducted by the bowl's attorneys and laid out to them how the scheme allegedly operated.

Federal prosecutor Gary Restaino had no comment.

Wisneski seemed at ease as she chatted with her attorneys before the judge called her case. She declined to comment outside court.

Federal Magistrate David K. Duncan ordered Wisneski released on her own recognizance after she turned in her passport. A trial date was set for Jan. 3, although early trial dates almost always are pushed back.

Federal prosecutors may have their reasons for indicting Wisneski and not filing yet against Junker and Husk.

While not addressing the specific case, former U.S. attorney for Arizona Paul Charlton said prosecutors sometimes charge a cooperating witness to encourage them to cooperate more fully or they may be dissatisfied with the help they've been given so far. The indictment could impress upon them the gravity of the situation.

They also could be sending a message to those who are more responsible for the alleged crime, he said.

"Whenever you charge a multi-defendant conspiracy case, you are very much aware of who the most culpable and who the least culpable individuals are, and you attempt to reflect that culpability both in your charging and eventually in the disposition of the case," Charlton said.

The 47-year-old Wisneski is the first person charged in the scandal that led to the dismissal of Junker in March. Junker has not been charged but remains under investigation by state and federal agencies.

Wisneski resigned from her job in March, shortly after 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.

The Fiesta Bowl also hosts the national major college football championship game every four years and the scandal put its role as one of the four top-tier bowls in jeopardy. But it avoided the worst sanctions — the loss of the championship game and its NCAA license.

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 Arizona Republic first reported on the campaign contribution reimbursements in December 2009. The bowl denied them and hired former Arizona attorney general Grant Woods to investigate. After a cursory probe, he reported to the bowl's board that he found no credible evidence of the contributions. His report stood until Junker's assistant told the board's chairman that the allegations were true and a new probe was launched.

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 Fiesta Bowl then brought in former University of Arizona President Robert N. Shelton as its new executive director. In a Nov. 18 interview with the Associated Press, Shelton said excesses at the bowl are a thing of the past.