Wichita Rodney Jones pleaded guilty Friday to his role in a five-year conspiracy to steal, distribute and pocket proceeds from the sale of Kansas University basketball and football tickets through ticket brokers.
Selling season basketball tickets through one broker alone generated proceeds of more than $975,000, the former assistant athletics director admitted in U.S. District Court in Wichita.
“Are you telling the court that you’re guilty?” asked U.S. District Judge Wesley Brown.
“Yes, sir,” Jones said.
Brown accepted Jones’ guilty plea to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, a conviction punishable by up to 20 years in prison, a $250,000 fine and responsibility for paying on a monetary judgment of up to $2 million.
“He has accepted responsibility for his role in the diversion and sale of tickets from Kansas University,” said Gerald Handley, Jones’ attorney. “He deeply regrets his involvement in this episode. He apologizes to the university for his conduct. He has agreed to and is cooperating with the authorities to resolve the issues that are referred to in the indictment.”
The plea came a day after one of Jones’ former coworkers, one-time ticket manager Kassie Liebsch, also pleaded guilty to conspiracy. Three others remain charged with conspiracy and await trial Feb. 15:
• Charlette Blubaugh, who preceded Liebsch as leader of the ticket office.
• Tom Blubaugh, Charlette Blubaugh’s husband and a former paid consultant to Kansas Athletics Inc.
• Ben Kirtland, former associate athletics director for development.
Jones had worked as leader of the Williams Fund, whose members receive access to purchase KU tickets based on the number of points they have accumulated through monetary donations; the higher the points, the better seat selections.
In court Friday, Jones admitted receiving tickets from Kirtland, Liebsch and Charlette Blubaugh — tickets that then would be sold through brokers, with proceeds returning to Jones to be split with fellow conspirators.
One broker in the Kansas City area told authorities that he “understood that the tickets were being obtained legally,” said Richard Hathaway, assistant U.S. attorney. But that was not the case, as such tickets were taken before they could be made available to donors through normal channels.
Also part of the scheme, Hathaway said:
• The Internal Revenue Service used a variety of investigative techniques to discover that ticket brokers in the Kansas City area were receiving “an inordinate number” of KU basketball season tickets. These brokers were writing large checks to “cash” and then “a friend and associate” of Jones was taking the cash to Jones.
• The IRS sifted through the associate’s trash and found corresponding ticket stubs that all had consecutive numbers except for one. Jones was identified as having received those tickets.
• The IRS and FBI went to KU and determined Jones had not been reporting this outside income, thus violating both NCAA and university rules.
• The IRS determined Jones had converted 450 “cash hoards” into money orders from Western Union, each for $400 to $500 so he could avoid currency reporting requirements.
After Hathaway had finished, Brown asked Jones to confirm what he’d heard.
“Is that a true and accurate statement of what happened?” the judge asked.
“Yes, sir,” Jones said, using the phrase he would repeat more than 50 times during his 45-minute hearing.
As part of his plea agreement, Jones pledged to cooperate with authorities on any future investigation, hearings or trials regarding the case. He also must forfeit any assets gained as a result of the scheme.
No assets have yet been forfeited, Hathaway said.
In addition to Liebsch, two other former coworkers of Jones already have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with prosecutors: Jason Jeffries and Brandon Simmons await sentencing March 7 on charges that they failed to notify authorities about the scam.
Sentencing for Liebsch is set for 10 a.m. March 30, and Jones is scheduled to be sentenced at 10:30 a.m. March 31. In exchange for their cooperation, federal prosecutors have agreed to recommend reduced sentences in relation to those outlined in federal sentencing guidelines.
Jones remains free as he awaits sentencing, and Brown reminded him that he must comply with conditions stipulated in his bond agreement.
“It says, in effect: ‘Keep your nose clean,’ ” Brown said.
Jones chuckled slightly before leaning in toward his microphone.
“Yes, sir,” he said.