Five Former Staffers Face Federal Charges in Kansas Ticket Scandal
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Federal prosecutors charged five former University of Kansas employees Thursday with conspiring to steal more than $2 million in tickets to athletic events in a scandal that embarrassed the school and likely led to the early departure of athletic director Lew Perkins.
Investigators said the conspirators made between $3 million and $5 million in the scheme over five years.
Prosecutors singled out former associate athletic director Charlette Blubaugh, who was in charge of the ticket office. They said she began stealing tickets in 2005 and gave them to other key athletic department employees to sell, either personally or through third parties.
Blubaugh, 43, of Medford, Okla., was charged along with her husband, Thomas Blubaugh, 46, who was a consultant to the ticket office.
Also charged were former assistant athletic director Rodney Jones, 42, of Lawrence; former associate athletic director Ben Kirtland, 54, of Lenexa, Kan.; and Kassie Liebsch, 28, of Lawrence, who was a systems analyst working in the ticket office. The school said Liebsch resigned Thursday.
All five are scheduled to appear Dec. 8 in federal court in Wichita.
Two other former employees, Brandon Simmons and Jason Jeffries, have pleaded guilty to their roles in the scheme and are scheduled to be sentenced in federal court in March.
Jack Martin, spokesman for the university, said officials in Lawrence learned of the new charges when they were made public Thursday. He declined to comment on the particulars of the indictments, but said the university was cooperating with federal prosecutors.
Martin said a report completed by the university made clear that federal prosecutors had the ability to uncover additional information about the scandal.
Revelations of the ticket scam earlier this year angered many big-time donors who had been meeting exorbitant dollar demands for the privilege of buying premium tickets in always sold-out Allen Fieldhouse. Under an unpopular system imposed by Perkins to raise money, seating was allocated on a points system based on how much a fan donated to the Williams Fund, the money-raising arm of the athletic department.
The best seats were supposed to go to the people who made the biggest donations. That alone caused resentment, especially among older followers who had occupied good seats for years and were unable to meet the new demands. Many wondered whether others had gotten good seats simply by purchasing tickets sold in the scam.
Perkins retired in September, a year earlier than previously planned. While never accused of having anything to do with the ticket scam, he nevertheless admitted he had been guilty of poor oversight and said it was the most embarrassing thing that had happened in his 40-year career.
A report conducted by a Wichita law firm and released in May said five Kansas athletics staffers and a consultant — none of whom still work for the university — sold or used at least 17,609 men's basketball tickets, 2,181 football tickets and a number of parking passes and other passes for personal purposes.
The report showed that more than $887,000 in basketball tickets and more than $122,000 worth of football tickets were involved.
"Being on the athletics side, the simplest way to try to describe this is that there was a curveball thrown and I missed it," Perkins said in May. "I missed that curveball. It got by. We had the wrong people hired for the wrong jobs."
The report found no wrongdoing in the points system and said the scheme's actual effect on tickets awarded was minimal.
However, it prompted the university to send an e-mail to its largest donors to assure them that their contributions hadn't been stolen or misused. Other universities across the country started reviewing their own ticket policies as a result of the Kansas scandal.
The investigation began in March amid reports that tickets to Jayhawk basketball games — both at Allen Fieldhouse and in NCAA tournaments — were being scalped by officials within the athletic department.
The report suggested that Jones, former director of the Williams Fund who helped determine who got premium seats at Kansas home games, was a key player in the scandal. Kirtland, who was the school's associate athletic director of development, told investigators that Jones "was always on the lookout for development tickets."
The report blamed Kirtland for helping create "an atmosphere similar to a worker in a candy store" when it came to work with the tickets.
It also said Charlette Blubaugh, who was in charge of the ticket office and was the manager most familiar with the ticketing software, played a major role.
The indictment said the scheme included entering false information into a computer system designed to prevent tickets from being stolen, paying kickbacks to third parties not connected to the ticket office to sell tickets, and concealing the receipt of outside income on reports required by the NCAA.
Jones' attorney, Gerald Handley, said he is reviewing the indictment with his client and would have no further comment. Kirtland's attorney, Robin Fowler, said the charges were being reviewed and that he and his client would "respond to those allegations in court at the appropriate time."
Attorneys James Wyrsch and David Bell, representing Liebsch, also said they were studying the indictment and had no comment. David Rapp, who is representing Charlette Blubaugh, said he had not comment. Steve Robison, an attorney for Thomas Blubaugh, didn't immediately return an e-mail message seeking comment.
Lanny Welch with the U.S. attorney's office in Wichita said all the defendants have been issued a summons but none has been taken into custody.
Phone messages left for Perkins were not immediately returned. The Williams Fund directed questions to associate athletic director Jim Marchiony, who also didn't immediately return a call.
No phone number was listed for Thomas and Charlette Blubaugh, Jones or Liebsch. Kirtland did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment.
Gary Sherrer, president of the Kansas Board of Regents, said the board is confident changes have been made to prevent another scandal.
"The legal process is completely separate from the Board of Regents," Sherrer said. "We focus on whether changes have been made to give assurance this won't happen again. We fully believe that has happened. The chancellor did a good job of putting a new system in place, with a forensic auditor and new processes. We think it has been addressed, and addressed well."
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