Ex-Fiesta Bowl COO indicted by federal grand jury

Posted: Updated:
By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas

PHOENIX (AP) -- 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 the 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.

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.