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ISU is finalizing plans for external review of Athletics spending

The newly inflated Athletics Indoor Practice Facility
ISU Athletics
The newly inflated Athletics Indoor Practice Facility is seen in late July. Fundraising efforts for the facility were at the center of a controversy that led to Athletics Director Kyle Brennan's resignation.

Illinois State University is finalizing plans to hire an external firm to review spending in its Athletics department, following the resignation of the athletics director over questionable spending on a donor trip.

Athletics Director Kyle Brennan resigned in April, and several other Athletics administrators have since left the department too. In April, ISU acknowledged spending that “appears to be inconsistent with the University’s mission and values” and pledged a “full financial audit” of Athletics.

That has not yet happened.

ISU has selected an external firm to “review expenditures in Athletics” and is now working to finalize the agreement for hiring them, said ISU spokesperson Eric Jome. That external review will take the place of a planned special internal audit, he said.

“Once we have the finalized agreement and start the engagement, we'll have a better idea of a completion date,” Jome said.

ISU interim president Aondover Tarhule acknowledged it’s taken longer than expected.

“So the procurement process for how to engage an accounting firm to do that review for us has taken a bit longer than I thought it would,” Tarhule told WGLT. “It's not any kind of resistance or slow-walking it. It's just a compliance (thing) and it's just a process of vetting and approving a firm.”

Athletics director search

As a result, Tarhule said he’s going wait to begin the search process for a new athletics director until spring 2024. Jeri Beggs is serving as interim athletics director but does not want the job permanently.

“One of the things I’d like to do first is to be done with the review of the things that happened, so that we have a clean slate for the new athletics director,” Tarhule said.

The Academic Senate, a central piece of ISU’s shared governance model, has sent a list of 12 “requests for action” to the administration related to the Athletics controversy. That list asks the university to “continue its investigation and make public any outcomes” and to “review what mechanisms are in place to prevent this from happening in the future.”

That list also includes: “The administration should use an external auditor to conduct a review of the Department of Athletics financial practices.” That appears to be what ISU is about to do.

“An executive summary (of the external review) will be shared with the Academic Senate. As the firm works through the process the type and format of the report will be finalized,” Jome said.

ISU also has its own Internal Auditing team, which last reviewed Athletics in mid-2022. That internal audit obtained by WGLT found two-dozen problem areas – including prohibited or questionable purchases, a risky approach to travel, and sloppy or delayed record-keeping that would make it harder to detect issues.

Robert Blemler, who oversees ISU’s internal audits, told WGLT in April that his team was asked to do a new internal audit of Athletics, and that he expected it to take two or three months. That’s no longer planned.

“That was initially the plan,” Jome said. “But once the decision was made to engage an external firm, it was decided that this would replace the internal audit. Internal Audit will work with the external firm and provide support and assistance throughout the engagement.”

The Academic Senate had wanted to see the internal audit.

“The administration should share the unfiltered results of its internal audit with the Senate, if legally allowed,” the Senate included in its list of requests. That echoes the sentiment of several senators who spoke at an April meeting following Brennan’s resignation.

Brennan’s April 13 resignation announcement came as WGLT was preparing to publish its story about the donor trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten football championship game in December 2021. Athletics spent more than $23,000 on last-minute tickets and hotel rooms as they tried to woo Aaron Rossi — suddenly a millionaire due to his booming COVID testing business — into making a hefty donation. Some on the trip visited a strip club.

The trip worked: Rossi made a $3 million pledge in January 2022 to support Athletics’ new Indoor Practice Facility, although it’s unlikely ISU will ever get that money. Rossi was indicted on fraud charges soon after and remains under federal investigation. A judge has restricted how he spends his money.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.