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Do Campaign Finance Violations Warrant Jail Time? | A Question of Ethics

Q. I was amazed to see last month that longtime Fiesta Bowl official John Junker was sentenced to time in federal prison. He’s been a respected member of the community for decades, and I have a hard time fathoming that he would do anything that warrants time in prison. He does not seem like a criminal to me, and from what I’m told, he was accused of breaking rules about how to raise money for political campaigns. Can you really go to jail for that? On March 13, John Junker, former executive director and CEO of the Fiesta Bowl, was sentenced to eight months in federal prison. This is someone who Sports Illustrated once named the seventh-most-powerful man in college football, and whom others have called the face of what was good about college football bowls. Junker became executive director of the Fiesta Bowl in 1990, at just 34, and helped build it into one of the premier sporting events in the country, eventually becoming the nation’s highest paid bowl executive.  

Yet there he was last month in federal court in Arizona, standing before U.S. District Court Judge David Campbell, awaiting his fate.  

Many in the community submitted letters urging that Junker be spared prison time. There were more than 100 such letters, including one from Jerry Colangelo, former owner of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and MLB’s Arizona Diamondbacks, who called Junker an “important contributor and supporter of our community.” Other letters came from employees of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, the Phoenix charity serving the poor where Junker now works.  

Federal prosecutors argued, however, that prison time was warranted. “Junker’s crime is serious,” prosecutors wrote in a February court filing. “He was the leader of a multi-object conspiracy to make illegal campaign contributions, to lie to the Federal Election Commission and to defraud the United States by concealing illegal campaign contributions and lobbying expenses from the IRS.”  

In 2011, Junker admitted to all of this when he pleaded guilty to one count of criminal conspiracy. Specifically, he acknowledged conspiring to solicit political campaign contributions from Fiesta Bowl employees and to later reimburse those employees in the guise of employee bonuses.  

Why would someone do this? In fact, it is a classic way to try to evade laws that, at the time, prohibited corporations from making direct contributions to political campaigns. Junker stated in his plea agreement that he knew what he was doing, and that it was wrong.  

“I knew … that … it was illegal for … corporations … to make donations to political campaigns,” Junker stated in the agreement, “and that it was illegal to use other people’s names to pretend that contributions being made by … corporations … were actually not being made by the … corporations.” Junker also acknowledged that he knew that, since making contributions using other people’s names was illegal, agreeing to engage in this conduct with others was also a crime.  

But, he did so anyway. And, that’s presumably why he pleaded guilty to criminal conspiracy, a felony carrying a maximum of five years in prison.  

His plea agreement with prosecutors provided that his prison sentence would not exceed two years. And, in the time since his 2012 plea, Junker reportedly continued to help prosecutors with their investigation, as required by his plea agreement. Prosecutors ultimately recommended a one year sentence to the court. Junker’s attorney argued in response that probation alone would suffice.  

As judges often do, Campbell arrived at a result somewhere in between: eight months in prison. Campbell acknowledged that Junker has already paid a serious price for his actions, losing his job and more. But, Campbell said, Junker’s violations of law warranted a prison sentence because Junker had engaged in a conspiracy and caused his employees to commit crimes as well. As a result, even the Fiesta Bowl itself was put at risk by making false statements about campaign contributions to the government, including the IRS and the Federal Election Commission.  

So, what’s the lesson here? If you ever face sentencing for a federal crime, it may help reduce your sentence that you’re a valued member of the community, that you cooperated with the government, and that others speak out on your behalf. But, it won’t necessarily keep you out of prison. A felony is a felony.  

C. Simon Davidson is a partner with the law firm McGuireWoods. Submit questions to Questions do not create an attorney-client relationship. Readers should not treat his column as legal advice.

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