Top Kansas official gets 57 months for ticket scam
The feds wrapped up their investigation into a case that embarrassed the school
Ben Kirkland was the highest-ranking official caught in a $2 million scandal
Kirtland said he was sorry for all the "greed, stupidity and recklessness"
WICHITA, Kan. (AP) -- The highest-ranking official caught in a $2 million ticket-scalping scandal at the University of Kansas was sentenced Thursday to nearly five years in prison as federal prosecutors said they have wrapped up their investigation into a case that embarrassed the school.
Ben Kirtland, the former associate athletic director in charge of development, will spend 57 months in federal prison, the sentence jointly recommended by the prosecution and defense. Kirtland, 54, of Lenexa, was in charge of fundraising for Kansas Athletics Inc., the nonprofit group that promotes Jayhawks athletics.
"We believe we have pursued all credible leads. We believe in this particular instance, KU needs to move on," U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom said Thursday in a phone interview. "There's no evidence we've found of any other systematic problems at the university and we believe the university can put this behind them."
Grissom said he hoped the university can now focus on providing an education for students.
"This wasn't the University of Kansas, it was five individuals - parasites and thieves who took advantage of their positions," he said.
In all, seven people were snared in the investigation into the unlawful sale of football and basketball season tickets by key athletics department officials to ticket brokers and others in which the employees pocketed the money.
Kirtland pleaded guilty in February to a single count of conspiracy to defraud the United States through wire fraud, tax obstruction and interstate transportation of stolen property. In a brief courtroom statement, Kirtland said he was sorry for all the "greed, stupidity and recklessness" his actions caused.
Outside the courtroom afterward, he and family members cried as they hugged each other.
"As always it is the families and friends who trust and admire us who suffer the most," U.S. District Judge Wesley Brown told Kirtland during the hearing.
The judge also ordered restitution of more than $1.29 million, a figure that includes $1.2 million to be paid to the university and $85,000 to the Internal Revenue Service. Brown also entered a $2 million forfeiture judgment.
Five defendants pleaded guilty to conspiracy and were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 37 months to 57 months in prison. Of the total restitution ordered, Kirtland will be liable for about $1.19 million of it along with four co-defendants.
"Ben is a good man who made a bad mistake and, as he said in court, he is going to spend the rest of his life to atone for that," his defense attorney Robin Fowler said outside the courtroom.
Two other officials who cooperated with investigators were charged only with failing to tell authorities about the crimes and both received probationary sentences.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Hathaway told reporters his office would try to recover as much restitution as it can by going after any available assets.
Hathaway also tried to put to rest any lingering doubts about former athletic director Lew Perkins, who retired 12 months early last year without explanation. Perkins has in the past acknowledged poor oversight of the ticketing operations, saying the scandal was the most embarrassing thing that happened in his 40-year career.
"We never discovered any evidence that he knowingly participated," Hathaway said of Perkins.
A points system established by the university to encourage donations in exchange for tickets created an incentive for fraud in this case and gave the defendants the ability to manipulate the computer system, Hathaway said, adding the university has since done everything it can to prevent any ticket thefts.
The university issued a statement calling Kirtland's sentencing "the close of a painful chapter" and tried to reassure donors the university had started the process of rebuilding their trust immediately upon discovering the thefts.
Brown handed down probationary sentences in March to Brandon Simmons, the school's former athletic director of sales and marketing, and to Jason Jeffries, the former assistant director of ticket operations. Jeffries is believed to have stolen $56,000 worth of tickets, while Simmons' share of the loot was $157,000, according to court documents.
Kirtland and four others were charged with the more serious crime of conspiracy.
Charlette Blubaugh, the former associate director in charge of the school ticket office, was sentenced to 57 months in prison. Her husband, Tom Blubaugh, a consultant for the ticket office, was sentenced to 46 months in prison. The government contends the Blubaughs pocketed $841,000 from unlawful ticket sales.
Kassie Liebsch, the former systems analyst at the ticket office, was sentenced to 37 months in prison after receiving $299,000 in illicit ticket sale money. Former assistant athletics director Rodney Jones received a 46-month prison sentence. His personal take from the ticket scheme was believed to be $359,000. Kirtland pocketed $315,000.
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