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ISU Athletics Department audits find no other expenditure problems

several people at a meeting
Charlie Schlenker
Rob Blemler, right, Illinois State University director of internal auditing, on Wednesday night presented a summary of the findings of an internal audit and an external forensic accounting audit of Athletics Department spending to the university's Academic Senate.

Illinois State University has released summaries of an internal audit of Athletics Department spending and of an external audit commissioned in the wake of questionable expenditures that led to the resignation of Athletics Director Kyle Brennan last year.

Following the resignation, reports surfaced about a previous audit that found potential weaknesses in the department’s internal controls. WGLT was planning to publish a story about the December 2021 trip when ISU pre-emptively announced Brennan’s resignation.

In a presentation to the university's Academic Senate Wednesday evening, Rob Blemler, ISU's director of internal auditing, said the internal audit concluded a $18,754 reimbursement for tickets to the Big 10 football championship — during a donor trip that included a stop at a strip club — was an anomaly and no other expenditures of this nature were identified.

“I would note that there were also expenses on this trip for hotel rooms and ride shares paid for with foundation funds. And then I would note that the university has different travel rules and regulations, depending on the funding source, that is university funds or foundation funds,” said Blemler.

The external audit by a firm versed in forensic accounting reviewed expenses from both university and foundation funds from July 1, 2020, through April 30, 2023.

The consultants analyzed transactions to compare the expenditures of key employees against all other athletics department employees to show whether there were unusual spending patterns. They used data analytics to detect anomalies within a data set. They also searched transaction descriptions for specific key words, including but not limited to, "entertain tickets, donors and stewardship." Another search looked for duplicates of transaction amounts incurred by the same employee.

“They did not find any atypical expenditures incurred by key employees or other employees during the scope period outside of those identified by internal audit in 2023,” said Blemler. “These transactions were reported and deemed to be consistent with operations and not considered atypical.”

Blemler also reported on other steps to strengthen controls over entertainment and meals.

“University Advancement updated their cash disbursement guidelines in January of 2024. And these guidelines state that there are now per person thresholds for entertainment and meals. Expenses exceeding these limits require pre-approval by the appropriate vice president, athletic director or president," said Blemler.

"Specifically, entertainment expenses such as tickets exceeding $100 per person, and meals exceeding $80 per person must be pre-approved at least 72 hours prior to purchase date or the event date with a detailed business justification.”

If an employee has unplanned spending over those limits, they must submit them within 72 hours of the event with a detailed explanation and justification.

Senators had few questions during the meeting. One, from professor Jim Pancrazio, noted there are widespread background checks of people who come to campus in a variety of roles.

“Are we actually looking into the quality of the people who are going to be providing funds to this university? Because consistently, we're talking about our faculty that can embarrass the campus by making comments on Twitter or X or whatever you call it? And are we not paying attention to what we're actually pursuing?” said Pancrazio.

[Note: Aaron Rossi, whose plane was used during the donor trip, was indicted on felony tax fraud charges after the donor trip and after he made a pledge to support construction of an indoor practice facility at ISU.]

Senate chair Martha Horst said the senate last year asked the university to review how it vets potential donors. Blemler said that was outside the scope of the audits.

Horst said the ISU board of trustees and the Executive Council of the Senate have reviewed the full audit report, not just the summary. ISU president Aondover Tarhule was not present at the senate meeting and, according to an ISU spokesperson, was not available Wednesday evening.

Then-interim president Tarhule named faculty member and NCAA board member Jeri Beggs interim athletics director following Brennan's resignation as one move to bring calm to the institution. ISU also put off fee increases slated to support Athletics amid the questions about its institutional culture.

“We're happy that it's finally done and that it's out now in the public and been vetted through the board of trustees and through Academic Senate. We were happy that there were no other anomalies. And so, I'm pleased,” Beggs told WGLT.

Beggs expressed hope the results will restore faith in the Athletics Department.

“There are a lot of good people there. And they didn't deserve the, I guess, reputation that last spring created. And so, I'm happy that we're moving on,” she said.

She said current morale in the department is good and that people feel supported, adding the impact on donations and fundraising has been minimal.

“I don't think those really ever fell off. Our donors were sad to hear the story. But many of them were much more interested in whether our football team was going to be good in the fall, or how was men's and women's basketball going to do? They didn't seem to be as bothered by it, as I might have guessed,” said Beggs.

After he left ISU, Brennan returned to Utah for a job at a Name Image and Likeness Collective raising money for student- athletes. After a few months, he moved on to become vice president for sport commissions of the Professional Pickleball Association, based in Salt Lake City.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.