PHOENIX (AP) — For years, John Junker enjoyed the prestige of running the Fiesta Bowl organization, pulling in a six-figure salary, rubbing elbows with powerful people and taking advantage of the perks of the job such as spending $33,000 in bowl money on his birthday bash.
Then the longtime Fiesta Bowl chief executive suffered a bruising reversal of fortune. Three years ago, he was fired amid an illegal campaign contribution scandal that jeopardized the bowl's NCAA license.
His fall from grace was punctuated Thursday when he was sentenced to eight months in federal prison for participating in a scheme in which bowl employees made illegal campaign contributions to politicians and were reimbursed by the nonprofit bowl. Bowl employees were reimbursed at least $46,000 for such contributions.
In seeking leniency, Junker said he was a changed man and has had to live with sadness from his mistakes. "Every day of the last four years, I have lived with that sorrow," Junker told the judge, his voice cracking with emotion as he explained the negative impact the case has had on his family.
Junker, 58, is the only person to face time behind bars as a result of the scandal that jeopardized the bowl's NCAA license and its status as one of four bowls in the national college football championship rotation.
The Arizona Republic first revealed the reimbursement scheme in December 2009.
The Arizona bowl retained its Bowl Championship Series status at the time. The NCAA placed it on probation for a year, and the BCS fined it $1 million.
The scandal also exposed the lavish spending and perks that the Fiesta Bowl heaped on lawmakers and employees — though no charges were filed involving those perks.
Junker received cars, four high-end country club memberships, a $33,000 birthday party in Pebble Beach, Calif., $1,200 for a trip to a strip club, among other benefits from the Fiesta Bowl.
Nearly 30 lawmakers received free football tickets, and some got all-expense-paid trips from the bowl, but prosecutors declined to bring any charges against them.
The federal conspiracy conviction against Junker carries a maximum possible sentence of five years in prison, but after U.S. District Judge David Campbell took in a number of factors involving Junker and his actions, he faced a possible sentence of eight to 14 months in prison.
Campbell said Junker had no prior criminal convictions, led an otherwise productive life and was devoted to his religious faith. Still, he committed a crime that involved deception and asked employees to make illegal contributions, the judge noted.
"This was a serious offense," Campbell said.
Four other bowl employees were convicted of a state misdemeanor of making a prohibited campaign contribution, and the bowl's former chief operating officer pleaded guilty to a federal felony conspiracy charge. All five were sentenced to probation.
Junker also faces a March 20 sentencing in state court, where he pleaded guilty in 2012 to a felony charge of solicitation to commit a fraudulent scheme.
In his plea agreement in both federal and state courts, Junker said he knew it was illegal to use other people's names to mask the political contributions and that he made the decision to have the bowl reimburse contributors.
Prosecutors said Junker should be granted some leniency for cooperating with the investigation but should serve time behind bars because he abused his position of power by soliciting his employees to commit crimes.
"These five ordinary citizens were dragged into this by John Junker," prosecutor Frank Galati said Thursday.
Junker attorney Stephen Dichter said his client had acknowledged his guilt, cooperated with authorities and is genuinely remorseful. Dichter said the leader of the scheme was a lobbyist, not Junker, and that the bowl CEO wasn't deeply involved in the day-to-day operation of the scheme.
Junker now works for St. Vincent de Paul's and earns an annual salary of $47,000, compared to about $600,000 he pulled in during his last year with the bowl.