Four of the five ex-employees of the University of Kansas Athletic Department recently indicted on federal conspiracy charges have pled not guilty before a magistrate in Wichita, KS. The charges are related to an alleged ticketing scheme in which a number of Athletic Department staff are said to have illegally obtained nearly 20,000 basketball and football tickets from the Department and subsequently sold them for profit.
Last week, former Associate Athletic Director Charlotte Blubaugh and her husband Thomas, former Assistant Athletic Director Rodney Jones, and former Associate Athletic Director Ben Kirtland all pled not guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge Ken Gale on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The defendants were restricted to filing not guilty pleas only in front of the magistrate because, in felony cases, pleas other than not guilty typically are heard before a district judge.
A fifth defendant, Kassie Liebsch, received a continuance until January when she will attend a change of plea hearing with U.S. District Judge Wesley Brown so that she may plead guilty to the charges. Liebsch, the last of the defendants to be employed by the Athletic Department, took over Charlotte Blubaugh’s former position upon Blubaugh’s resignation in May, but she resigned hours before news of her indictment broke last month.
In July, two other former Athletic Department employees were charged in the case. Jason Jeffries, KU’s former Assistant Director for Ticket Operations, and Brandon W. Simmons, former Assistant Director for Sales and Marketing were both charged with misprision of felony, or having the knowledge of a committed felony and acting to concealing it.
Criminal information documents filed in Topeka’s federal court alleged that Simmons and Jeffries were aware of the theft of over $5,000 in tickets from the department but failed to report this to authorities. Both men have pled guilty to the charges, have cooperated with the authorities, and are due to be sentenced in federal court in March. The pair may receive up to three years in prison and fined up to $250,000.
Prosecutors contend that Charlotte Blubaugh stole tickets from the AD’s office and funneled them to Kirtland, Jones, Liebsch, Simmons and Jeffries for the purposes of sale to ticket brokers and other third parties. In order to hide these transactions, payment from these third parties was apparently taken in cash or in checks made out to those not associated with the department. The group is also accused of providing kickbacks to their sellers in return for their services, subverting computer software meant to prevent ticket theft in the AD, and omitting the receipt of these outside funds on NCAA forms.
Included within the conspiracy charges are allegations of obstruction of income tax collection and transporting stolen goods across state lines. The use of the internet for these transactions invoked the wire fraud charge. The government is seeking a payment of up to $5 million from those indicted as repayment of the estimated value of the tickets sold.
Following their hearing, the Blubaugh’s, Kirtland and Jones were released on their own recognizance, signing $25,000 bonds which they must pay if they don’t comply with the court. All four will now work with the feds on changing their pleas or else prepare for a jury trial. For their charges, all five indicted co-conspirators face a maximum of 30 years in federal prison and up to $1 million in fines.
The news of the scandal, which broke as a result of KU’s internal investigation earlier this year, led a number of other universities across the nation to review their own ticketing policies.
KU’s Athletic Director since 2003, Lew Perkins, retired abruptly in September in the wake of this and other controversies surrounding his tenure at the school. Perkins, a well-regarded Athletic Director at UConn in the 1990s, has consistently denied any direct involvement with the ticketing scheme, but he has acknowledged that he should have had better oversight of the department during his time there.