Originally published February 16, 2012 at 03:10p.m., updated February 16, 2012 at 07:17p.m.
City leaders have confirmed two Lawrence police officers were suspended following an investigation conducted by the FBI related to traffic tickets being fixed in exchange for Kansas University basketball tickets.
City Manager David Corliss said Thursday afternoon the person whose traffic tickets were fixed is serving time in a federal prison related to the broader KU ticket scandal. A federal judge last year sentenced four former Kansas Athletics Inc. employees — Ben Kirtland, Rodney Jones, Charlette Blubaugh and Kassie Liebsch — and one department consultant, Tom Blubaugh, to federal prison after their guilty pleas in the cash-for-tickets scam from 2005 to 2010 that rocked the university and cost it more than $2 million in football and basketball tickets.
Corliss said in the recent case that Police Chief Tarik Khatib received an anonymous tip in May 2011 about the possible ticket-fixing. It was referred to federal authorities for an investigation. Corliss said the investigators did not believe any criminal charges would be forthcoming.
City officials did not release the names of the two suspended police officers, saying it was a personnel matter.
City officials said the city’s personnel review process is ongoing because the actions of dismissing speeding tickets in exchange for the KU basketball tickets violated the city’s gratuity policy.
“The Lawrence Police Department has the confidence of myself and the Lawrence City Commission,” Corliss said. “This is a serious matter with serious consequences. That is why I referred it to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. ... The police chief is taking the necessary personnel actions, which are serious.”
City officials confirmed the ticket-fixing matter after the Journal-World on Thursday told Corliss it had information the FBI had conducted an investigation regarding KU tickets being given to police officers in exchange for dismissing city tickets.
Thursday’s statement by the city left several questions unanswered.
Both Khatib and Corliss confirmed that “several” members of the Lawrence Police Department were involved in the dismissal of tickets, although they contend one individual orchestrated the matter. Neither Khatib nor Corliss would comment on how many department members were involved with dismissing tickets.
The city also did not provide details about the number of tickets dismissed or the time period over which the dismissals occurred. City officials said they were uncertain of how long the ticket-fixing activity occurred, but said they had evidence it took place over several years.
“It’s my job to make sure that it doesn’t happen again,” Khatib said. “It’s my job to reinforce to employees that this is not an acceptable behavior.”
Mayor Aron Cromwell said one of the suspended individuals orchestrated the dismissal of the tickets, while the other is an individual who had knowledge of the activity and did not step forward. Cromwell said he expects the officer who was leading the activity will be removed from the city’s police force.
“I think that would be a likely scenario,” Cromwell said. “The actual decision is up to the police chief, but I don’t foresee any other potential outcome for the one officer.”
Khatib and Corliss declined to comment on any specific personnel actions that may come from the case. Corliss also declined to say whether the two individuals have been suspended without pay, although he did say the status of their suspensions had changed as the city’s investigation progressed.
Khatib acknowledged that he believed there had been allegations of “similar activity” involving police department personnel made prior to the May 2011 anonymous tip. Khatib — who was not chief at the time — said his understanding is those allegations were examined but there was never enough evidence to take more formal action. Khatib succeeded longtime Police Chief Ron Olin, who retired from the city in September 2010 to become director of security and internal controls for Kansas Athletics Inc., also after the KU ticket scandal came to light. Olin left his position with KU last July, saying he had worked himself out of a job and that his services to KU would likely be offered in the future as a consultant. Olin did not return a call seeking comment Thursday.
“It’s unfortunate that this issue has been resurrected,” KU Associate Athletic Director Jim Marchiony said referring to Thursday’s news from City Hall. “But we certainly didn’t know anything about it. We’ve moved on.”
Cromwell said he was disappointed that traffic tickets apparently were being fixed by police department employees for a number of years. But he said he was pleased with how Khatib — who took over as police chief in February 2011 — responded to the anonymous complaint.
“I’m very confident that Chief Khatib will identify where the weaknesses are that have been illuminated by this event,” Cromwell said. “He will make sure that officers know if they see anything going on, whether it is a police officer, a civilian or their close friend, they have to report it.”
Corliss said he believed the events would require the police department to at least partially rebuild its reputation with the community.
“I think there will be some momentary damage to the department, but the continuing strength of the department and the excellent work provided by the members of the department is appreciated by this community and will continue to be appreciated by the community,” Corliss said. “This community has faith in its police department and should have faith in its police department.”
Khatib said Thursday that he did not believe an independent citizens review board would be helpful or instructive in a situation like this investigation.
“This worked. The information came in anonymously. It was jumped on vigorously, and people are going to be held accountable,” Khatib said.
Laura Routh, a Lawrence resident who has urged for more independent oversight of the police department, said she appreciated a statement that Khatib was intent to make sure it didn’t happen again.
“But to say that what has occurred is merely a personnel matter, involving only unacceptable behavior, is a bit soft, I think. Let’s call it what it is. It’s graft. It’s corruption,” Routh said. “And, in my opinion, it validates and rightfully reinvigorates the many questions that have been raised in the past about the transparency of, and accountability within, the Lawrence Police Department.”
Khatib said internal affairs investigators, city management and himself were specifically trained to deal with these types of investigations.
“We have the time, training and the expertise to conduct investigations, to get to the bottom and to get the answers for these types of things,” he said.
But Routh said she believed the community trust in the department “will be further eroded by this unfortunate revelation.”
“I really feel bad for Chief Khatib. He’s inherited quite a legacy, and as a leader he’s got some difficult work to do,” Routh said. “I hope that the city will take this opportunity to engage the citizenry in a broader discussion of police priorities and performance. To improve the community perception of and trust in the police department, we need some form of independent police oversight.”