November 19, 2010

New ticket operations director at KU indicted

The woman put in charge of restoring integrity to a scandal-tainted University of Kansas sports ticket office now stands accused of being part of the problem.

The woman put in charge of restoring integrity to a scandal-tainted University of Kansas sports ticket office now stands accused of being part of the problem.

Kassie Liebsch, 28, the university's director of ticket operations, resigned Thursday morning just before federal authorities announced a grand jury indictment against her and four of her former co-workers.

The defendants allegedly stole more than $2 million worth of tickets to football and basketball games from 2005 to 2010 and sold them to individuals and ticket brokers, said Lanny Welch, chief criminal prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Kansas.

They earned up to $5 million from the scheme, the indictment alleges.

The federal and university investigations, first reported in March by the Kansas City Star, previously led to the resignations of at least seven top athletics department staff members. The roiling controversy also contributed, at least in part, to fan and donor dissatisfaction with former athletic director Lew Perkins, who retired in September, a year earlier than expected.

Perkins, who hired or promoted all of the indicted parties, left after weathering controversies involving the ticket scandal, his multimillion-dollar pay package, a state ethics investigation and questions about his university sponsored travel.

He was not charged in the indictment announced Thursday. His lawyer did not return a call seeking comment.

The indictments of former director of ticket operations Charlette Blubaugh; her husband and former department consultant, Thomas Ray Blubaugh; former Williams Educational Fund director Rodney Jones; and former head of fundraising Ben Kirtland echoed the alleged wrongdoing that the university documented in an internal report released in May.

Two other former employees, Jason Jeffries and Brandon Simmons, already have pleaded guilty to related charges and are cooperating with authorities.

Outrage over news

Though charges against the other four were not a surprise, the indictment of Liebsch incensed KU law school graduate Larry Tenopir, a Topeka attorney and member of the Williams Fund, the primary fundraising arm of Kansas Athletics Inc.

"I think it's incredibly distressing that the new person that's indicted is apparently in charge of ticket operations up through this morning when she resigned," Tenopir said. "That just flabbergasted me that they still had someone there working who was involved. It kind of makes you wonder how honest the ticket distribution was this year."

Milton "Mick" Allen, grandson of famed Kansas coach Phog Allen, echoed Tenopir's frustration.

"It just shows poor personnel choices made by our departed athletic director," Allen said. "They keep shoveling more bad news on bad news."

Cleared in KU report

Liebsch began her employment in the ticket office as a KU student in August 2002 and received a full-time position in 2005.

The university investigation showed that Liebsch worked closely with other employees charged in the alleged conspiracy. Still, that report concluded that she had cooperated with investigators and had not engaged in wrongdoing.

The report noted that she once was told by Charlette Blubaugh, her predecessor, to "never" tell Kirtland or Jones "no" when they were searching for extra tickets. She also once received two extra complimentary tickets, which she gave to Jones.

In May, athletics officials defended Liebsch's remaining at the ticket office, telling the Star that they had no evidence she was involved in wrongdoing.

A statement from the athletic department Thursday echoed that defense.

"Last spring the University commissioned an independent investigation of the issue," the statement read. "The resulting report did not implicate Liebsch."

University spokesman Jack Martin said that Liebsch's name surfaced Thursday because the federal government used subpoena powers that the university didn't have in its review.

Anti-theft measures

Sean Lester, interim athletics director, said he was confident that steps taken earlier this year to prevent ticket theft were working.

"Over the past six months we have implemented measures to strengthen our ticket protocols and make the entire process more transparent," Lester said in the written statement. "I think our donors appreciate the enhancements we have made in transparency, accountability and the fact that so many of their seating locations have improved."

On Thursday, KU officials touted the progress they've made: the hiring of a forensic auditor and the placement of new controls and restrictions on access to the computer ticketing system, among other efforts. They also hired newly retired Lawrence Police Chief Ron Olin as director of security and internal control.

Lawyers representing Liebsch, Jones, Kirtland and Charlette Blubaugh declined to comment on the one-count conspiracy indictment, saying they had not yet studied the charge and discussed it with their clients.

A lawyer representing Thomas Blubaugh could not be reached for comment. The telephone at the Blubaughs' home in Oklahoma was disconnected.

None of the five alleged conspirators was under arrest Thursday, Welch said. All are scheduled to make initial court appearances on Dec. 8.

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