Originally published May 12, 2011 at 10:40a.m., updated May 12, 2011 at 02:28p.m.
Today marks the close of a painful chapter in the history of Kansas Athletics and the University of Kansas as the last of the conspirators in the recent ticket theft case was sentenced.
We have already recovered money from some of the conspirators and will continue to use all means available to us to recover the rest. What we recover will be directed to the benefit of our student-athletes, just as the money from the stolen tickets would have been.
We also started the process of rebuilding your trust immediately upon discovering these thefts. We put into place new internal controls, hired a forensic auditor and greatly increased the transparency of the Select-a-Seat process. Continuing that effort is one of our priorities, as it is for every member of the Kansas Athletics staff.
We want to thank all of you who stood with the university during this difficult period, as well as those of you who made your concerns and disappointment known. Jayhawks are passionate, and we thank you for the passion and loyalty you show on game day and every day.
Bernadette Gray-Little, Chancellor
Sheahon Zenger, Director of Athletics
Wichita The man who led fundraising for Kansas Athletics Inc. for more than five years is headed to prison for his role in a ticket-stealing scheme that drained at least $2 million from the department and cost some donors opportunities for the seats they otherwise deserved at Allen Fieldhouse.
Ben Kirtland, who served as associate athletic director for development from 2004 to April 2010, was sentenced Thursday morning to spend 57 months in prison for conspiracy to commit wire fraud, tax obstruction and transportation of stolen property across state lines.
He is the last of five conspirators convicted of the charges to be sentenced in federal court, and he received a term equal to that of Charlette Blubaugh — the associate athletic director for ticket operations who had overseen the computer system that department officials had counted on to prevent such thefts.
All conspirators sentenced
Kirtland, who reported directly to then-Athletic Director Lew Perkins, earlier had told the court that he had a duty to “set a standard” that such sales of tickets would not be permitted.
On Thursday, he was ordered to spend time in prison and pay nearly $1.3 million in restitution: more than $85,000 to the IRS, and the rest to Kansas Athletics.
“I’m sorry for my actions of greed and stupidity and recklessness,” Kirtland told U.S. District Court Judge Wesley Brown. “I will spend the rest of my life to atone for my actions.”
Kirtland’s attorney asked the judge that his client be incarcerated near Hartford, Conn., where his 90-year-old mother lives.
Brown imposed the sentence in the same courtroom where he previously had sentenced Kirtland’s fellow conspirators:
• Blubaugh, who is in transit to her prison destination to begin her 57-month term.
• Rodney Jones, former assistant athletic director for the Williams Fund, now in a prison camp in Oklahoma for a 46-month term.
• Kassie Liebsch, a former systems analyst who took over ticket operations following Blubaugh’s resignation and then resigned upon her own indictment by grand jury in November. She is in a prison camp in Illinois, serving a 37-month term.
• Thomas Blubaugh, Charlette Blubaugh’s husband and a former paid consultant to the department, who is not yet in custody to begin his 46-month term.
Kirtland, Jones, Liebsch and Charlette Blubaugh all share responsibility for paying nearly $1.2 million in restitution to Kansas Athletics, Brown has ruled. Thus far, the department has received nearly $340,000 through restitution and an insurance claim related to the case.
Kirtland learned about his financial responsibilities less than a year after he’d already entered into a civil agreement with the department to repay $63,000. Kirtland had voluntarily sought to enter an agreement, and even paid the department $64,500 by the end of last year to keep up his end of that deal.
The tickets scheme ran from 2005 through 2009, and an investigation conducted for the department and Kansas University determined that it had involved the theft, resale and unlawful distribution of more than 17,000 tickets for men’s basketball and at least 2,000 tickets for football.
“This was not a momentary lapse of judgment,” the judge told Kirtland on Thursday.
The investigation conducted for KU determined that the scheme had cost the department from $1 million to $3 million, and its lead investigator has speculated that the total cost likely had been higher. Tickets that otherwise would have been available for donors — with locations to be chosen through the department’s Select-a-Seat program, based upon points earned through the Williams Fund — instead had been taken by employees and often sold through brokers for the conspirators’ personal gain.
Federal authorities have maintained that it was a $2 million scheme, involving brokers and Internet sales in transactions that crossed state lines.
Two other former Kansas Athletics employees also have been convicted in the scheme: Jason Jeffries and Brandon Simmons, two lower-level employees granted probation after pleading guilty to misprision, a felony that involved not notifying authorities that a crime had been taking place.
‘Painful chapter’ over
Kirtland’s sentencing was the last for criminal defendants in the case, bringing closure to proceedings that have harmed the financial conditions and the reputation of Kansas Athletics and KU itself, said Richard Hathaway, an assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the cases.
“Now they can get this behind them and get on with the business they’re in,” Hathaway said, outside the courtroom.
Following Kirtland’s sentencing, KU Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little and Athletic Director Sheahon Zenger issued a joint statement regarding the “close of a painful chapter” for the university and for Kansas Athletics.
“We want to thank all of you who stood with the university during this difficult period, as well as those of you who made your concerns and disappointment known,” they said in the note, which was emailed to donors. “Jayhawks are passionate, and we thank you for the passion and loyalty you show on game day and every day.”