Detective sounded alarm about ticket fixing a year before police department launched investigation

Lawrence Police Department

In 2012, when Lawrence police officers were publicly accused of fixing traffic tickets in exchange for University of Kansas athletic tickets, the police chief said his department “jumped on” and “vigorously” investigated the scandal.

However, after a former officer implicated in the scandal recently called Chief Tarik Khatib’s handling of the matter into question, a Journal-World investigation of documents connected to the case shows the city received multiple tips about ticket fixing well before the department ever took its ultimate action.

The documents show that not only did the department receive a detailed tip about ticket fixing a year before the widespread investigation began, but the tip came from a well-respected detective on the police force. The documents also show that then-Police Chief Ron Olin was not told that the tip came from a police detective.

By the time Khatib launched an investigation in 2011 the department had received three tips of ticket fixing and improper gratuities — each naming multiple officers — within the course of a year.

The Journal-World conducted its review after former Sgt. Mike Monroe attended the March 21 Lawrence City Commission meeting and asked for a new investigation into the matter. He provided commissioners with a city document detailing how Khatib — who was in charge of the department’s internal affairs division at the time — knew of the ticket fixing well before the 2011 investigation was launched.

The Journal-World’s review also discovered that the results of the police department’s internal investigation were more complex than the city ever publicly reported. Aside from Monroe and Sgt. Matt Sarna — who both lost their jobs in the scandal’s aftermath — the city found that at least two other officers violated the city’s policy related to tickets, including one officer who received 2008 Final Four tickets from a KU Athletics official for whom she had previously voided a traffic ticket.

Khatib and city officials have repeatedly declined to comment on the investigation and on the new concerns raised by Monroe.

Early warnings

On May 26, 2010, the names of five KU Athletics employees under investigation in the theft of more than $1 million in university sports tickets were released. Rodney Jones was one of the names on the list.

Jones was widely known to be friendly with a number of Lawrence police officers, and his name hit home for veteran Lawrence Police Detective Mike McAtee, who immediately called Khatib.

Khatib, then a captain, met with McAtee in the Lied Center’s parking lot. There, McAtee warned Khatib that the department could face serious blowback from the scandal because he knew of at least one officer who was close to Jones.

Sworn testimony from McAtee — taken as a deposition for a wrongful termination lawsuit Monroe filed against the city in 2013 — alongside a transcribed police interview with McAtee’s wife, offer insight into the conversation at the Lied Center.

In October 2009, Sarna hosted a party at Johnny’s West in Lawrence to celebrate his recent promotion to the rank of sergeant. There, Ms. McAtee overheard him speaking to Jones in a conversation where it was “more than implied” that “Sarna’s taking care of law enforcement business” for Jones “in exchange for the nice tickets,” she told police.

“I specifically heard Rodney say to Matt, ‘Congratulations, I expect my coverage to be better.’ And Matt said, ‘Thank you, and I expect mine to be the same.’ So is that just bantering? I don’t know. It seemed inappropriate, and it just seemed wrong,” she told police.

Considering the conversation his wife overheard and the report from KU about the athletic tickets scandal, McAtee said in his deposition that he called Khatib because he felt there were “articulable facts to believe there was misconduct.”

The next morning Khatib and Lawrence Police Capt. Stephen Zarnowiec interviewed Sarna about McAtee’s concerns.

Sarna acknowledged that he had voided two speeding tickets for Jones. However, that number was later proved to be at least six. He also admitted to accepting free sports tickets from Jones and dropped the names of three other officers — including Monroe — who had also received basketball tournament tickets.

After the interview, Khatib reported some of his findings to then-Police Chief Olin. How much he told him remains unclear, however.

In a deposition, Khatib said he did not tell Olin that some of the information came from McAtee. When he was asked why that was the case, Khatib said he believed McAtee wished to remain anonymous.

McAtee’s deposition testimony, however, conflicts with Khatib’s statement.

“I don’t believe I asked to remain anonymous because I don’t believe when you’re reporting misconduct to the Internal Affairs Captain that that’s a possibility,” he said.

Olin then personally interviewed Sarna, but quickly decided not to investigate further. Nobody else was questioned before Olin stopped the investigation and Khatib said in his deposition that he could not remember if he recommended interviewing additional officers.

McAtee wouldn’t learn for a year that Olin stopped the investigation, although at the time of his conversation with Khatib he “came away with the feeling that it would be investigated and/or looked into.”

“I had full belief that an Internal Affairs investigation would be conducted,” McAtee testified in the deposition.

Two months after Khatib and Zarnowiec interviewed Sarna, on July 29, 2010, Olin received an anonymous letter expressing concerns that Sarna and other officers were compromised by their relationships with Jones.

“The longer the relationship, the better the seats, the more tickets taken care of,” the letter says.

While the public was never told about the July letter, Olin did discuss its contents with the department’s captains, according to retired Lawrence Police Capt. Ray Urbanek.

Khatib, who was a captain at the time, later testified that he didn’t remember Olin speaking about the letter. It remains unclear exactly when Khatib became aware of the anonymous tip.

Three days after receiving the anonymous letter, Olin announced his plans to retire on the first of September. Before the announcement, Khatib said in his deposition that he was unaware of the chief’s plans to leave.

A week later, then-City Manager David Corliss announced that Khatib would serve as the department’s interim chief when Olin left.

The day after the department held a goodbye reception for Olin, KU Athletics reported that on Sept. 1 the former police chief would start working for the university in a brand new, security-related position.

Despite McAtee’s concerns and Sarna’s own admissions, shortly after Khatib was named interim chief he promoted Sarna to be the department’s chief spokesman. Previously Khatib had shifted Monroe to a position within the department’s internal affairs division.

In November 2010 Jones and four other KU Athletics employees were indicted on federal conspiracy charges. The five would eventually be convicted and serve time in prison for an estimated loss of 19,000 sports tickets totaling between $1 million and $3 million.

The investigation

The police department’s involvement in the scandal lay dormant until May 2011 when a second anonymous letter was delivered to Khatib addressing an “overdue investigation concerning” a quid-pro-quo relationship between Jones and department employees.

That month Khatib asked Lawrence Police Capt. Dan Ward — his replacement as head of internal affairs — to investigate. The following are brief summaries of some of the investigation’s findings:

• In addition to Monroe and Sarna, at least four others — three officers and a sergeant — were implicated in the scandal.

The three officers all admitted to voiding traffic tickets, though only two also accepted free KU tickets. Those two were found to have violated the same gratuity and ticket voiding policies as Monroe and Sarna, according to statements made by city employees in depositions.

One of those two officers received free 2008 Final Four tickets that ultimately came through Charlette Blubaugh, one of the people who would be imprisoned alongside Jones. The officer admitted to voiding tickets for a basketball coach and her neighbor who worked in the athletic department’s ticket office. The officer received the tickets for the Final Four about three years after she arranged for the athletic official’s traffic ticket to be voided. The officer contended she arranged for the ticket to be voided out of friendship and did not expect anything in return. Sarna made similar arguments about why he voided tickets for Jones.

• The court documents also raise questions about the thoroughness of the investigation. In one instance, the documents show the city found that a separate police sergeant acknowledged receiving a free KU athletic ticket from a source. But Ward, the internal affairs officer conducting the investigation, said in a deposition that he couldn’t recall whether he asked the sergeant if he ever voided a traffic ticket for the source who gave him the free KU athletic ticket.

• Through KU employees, officers attended university basketball games and tournaments in Lawrence, the Sprint Center in Kansas City and arenas in Omaha, New Orleans, San Antonio and Oklahoma City.

• None of the four implicated alongside Monroe and Sarna was fired. The two officers who also violated department policies were given verbal warnings.

All of the officers remained a part of the department, until one retired several years after the investigation.

• During the investigation, several officers told Ward it was a common practice to void tickets for family and friends or at the request of a fellow officer.

One of the officers found to have violated department policies told Ward that perhaps the practice was too common.

“The traffic unit wrote so doggone many tickets,” he said. “And those officers got pretty tired … they got pretty tired of people coming up to them and asking them to do favors, because then they’re the one going in, can you do, do, do, do, do, and after a while, that gets pretty old.”

• Ward found that at least five tickets issued to Jones were either voided after the fact, dismissed outright by then-City Prosecutor Jerry Little, or the charges were reduced to nonmoving violations such as inattentive driving.

It remains unclear whether Little, who has since retired, ever received sports tickets. Attempts to reach Little for comment were unsuccessful.

In a 2014 deposition, then-City Manager Corliss said Little was “counseled, to make sure he was following the appropriate procedures.”

• During his investigation, Ward checked through municipal, state and national driving records and found that in just over a decade, Jones had been stopped 56 times by 12 different law enforcement agencies. Lawrence police officers, Douglas County sheriff’s deputies and KU public safety officers conducted 25 of those stops.

Despite dozens of traffic stops, Jones only had two driving convictions on his record, Ward found. One was from Shawnee County in 2009, and the other was from Leavenworth County in 2008.

In February 2012, after Ward’s investigation was finished, Khatib released a public statement regarding the scandal.

“The investigation thus far has found that one commissioned employee had a friendship relationship with a former employee of the KU Athletic Department,” he said. “The single commissioned employee asked a second police officer two to three times for assistance in fixing the citations.”

Sarna tendered his resignation in February 2012 and left with a small compensation package and a signed release protecting the city from any potential legal action. Monroe was fired shortly thereafter.

Monroe appealed his firing to a city grievance board, which then ruled that he should be allowed to remain employed by the city.

Corliss, however, overturned the grievance board’s decision.

Monroe filed a wrongful termination lawsuit in federal court, but it was dismissed in 2015. Since then, city commissioners have refused to meet with Monroe to discuss his concerns, and City Manager Tom Markus told him in a letter that he considers the matter to be closed.

Monroe insists that he was subjected to a disproportionate amount of discipline compared with his peers and says his calls for an outside, independent investigation have been ignored.

Several city commissioners declined to speak with the Journal-World, directing questions to City Attorney Toni Wheeler, who has also declined to comment on the matter.