Former ticket official pleads guilty

WICHITA, Kan. -- A $2 million ticket-scalping scheme at the University of Kansas began when an athletic department official began stealing tickets and giving them to her husband and five other employees to sell, federal prosecutors said Thursday.

Details about the five-year scam emerged when Charlette Blubaugh, the former associate athletic director, pleaded guilty to conspiracy during a hearing in Wichita and agreed to forfeit along with her co-defendants the $2 million in illicit proceeds. The charge carries up to 20 years in prison, though she will likely receive far less under federal sentencing guidelines.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Hathaway told the judge that beginning in 2005, athletics tickets were sent from the printer to Blubaugh, who was then in charge of the school's ticket office. She set aside a large number of season tickets that were initially requested by former associate athletic director Ben Kirtland, but she later began channeling them through her husband, Hathaway said.

Hathaway said the tickets were then sold in Oklahoma and the couple split the profits.

Blubaugh, 44, of Medford, Okla., spoke briefly during the hearing only to nervously answer "yes, your honor" to standard questions from the judge, who told her, "Please speak up so I can hear you -- and relax." Her defense attorneys declined comment after the hearing.

Blubaugh is the fifth person to plead guilty in a scam that reportedly involved nearly 20,000 basketball and football tickets before unraveling last year.

Her husband, Thomas, 46, is expected to plead guilty on Friday. He was on the payroll as a consultant from August 2007 until January 2010 at a cost of $115,000 to Kansas Athletics Inc., the nonprofit that promotes Kansas athletics, according to court documents.

After his expected plea, only Kirtland still faces trial.

As part of Charlette Blubaugh's plea deal, prosecutors agreed to ask the judge for leniency if she provides "substantial assistance" in investigating and prosecuting her co-conspirators.

U.S. District Judge Wesley Brown is not bound by that recommendation. Her sentencing is scheduled for April 14.

Kirtland, 54, of Lenexa, Kan., is scheduled for trial on March 8. He was head of fundraising for Kansas Athletics Inc., a nonprofit that promotes Kansas athletics, according to the indictment.

Former assistant athletic director Rodney Jones, who was in charge of the school's fundraising arm, and former systems analyst Kassie Liebsch, pleaded guilty to conspiracy this month. Brandon Simmons, the former assistant athletic director for sales, and Jason Jeffries, the former assistant director of ticket operations, pleaded guilty in July to knowing about the ticket scam and failing to report it.

The four will be sentenced in March.

The investigation began last year amid reports that tickets to Jayhawk games were being scalped by officials within the athletic department. Other universities across the country began reviewing their own ticket policies as a result of the scandal.

Revelations of the ticket scam angered many prominent donors who had been meeting exorbitant dollar demands for the privilege of buying premium tickets in always sold-out Allen Fieldhouse. Under an unpopular system imposed to raise money, seating was allocated on a points system based on how much a fan donated to the Williams Educational Fund, the money-raising arm of the athletic department that Jones oversaw. The best seats were supposed to go to the people who made the largest donations.

Former athletic director Lew Perkins retired in September, a year earlier than previously planned. While never accused of having anything to do with the ticket scam, he admitted poor oversight and said it was the most embarrassing thing that had happened in his 40-year career.

A report conducted by a Wichita law firm and released in May said former Kansas athletics staffers and a consultant sold or used at least 17,609 men's basketball tickets, 2,181 football tickets and a number of parking passes and other passes for personal purposes. The report showed that more than $887,000 in basketball tickets and more than $122,000 worth of football tickets were involved.