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APNewsBreak: U. Iowa fires worker after shortage

AP - Sports

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) -- The University of Iowa fired an athletics department accountant after auditors projected $66,000 is missing from ticket sales for a popular train that takes fans to the football stadium, a school spokesman said Wednesday.

The university fired 31-year employee Kathleen Willier from her $54,000-a-year job on Nov. 6 for failing to follow the school's cash handling procedures and unsatisfactory job performance, spokesman Tom Moore told The Associated Press.

The firing came after internal auditors found that the university failed to make deposits to university bank accounts after two 2011 football games for ticket sales to the Hawkeye Express, which transports fans from nearby Coralville to Kinnick Stadium for Hawkeye games. A roundtrip ticket costs adults $12 and more than 4,200 fans ride the train every game, a tradition since 2004.

An audit report dated Dec. 19 said revenue from ticket sales for the 2011 season unexpectedly dropped by an estimated $66,000 even though ridership slightly increased. The audit said deposits were made after only five of seven games, but were ''not always made timely and were not identifiable by game.''

Willier, 55, told auditors some of the deposits included multiple games - but that assertion was not considered credible because the final deposit for 2011 was made before the last home game, the report said.

''Management was not able to explain the drop in revenue, or locate the two unaccounted for deposits,'' the report said.

Willier's husband, Charlie Willier, said Wednesday that his wife disputes that any cash was missing and said she has been made a scapegoat for a deeply flawed ticket operation. He said some fans rode the train for free because workers did not tear ticket stubs, which allowed the same tickets to be used repeatedly.

''Of course, the university has to make a fall person. She was it,'' he said. ''They waited years to finally audit the train. To make themselves look good, they have to put the hammer on somebody.''

Charles Willier noted the university did not contest his wife's recent application for unemployment benefits, which can be denied for job-related misconduct. He said she was interviewed by police in November.

Her attorney, Marc Mills, declined comment.

Ludy Wiederholt, associate director of the UI Department of Public Safety, said a criminal investigation was opened in August at the request of the athletics department. She said the state auditor's office is assisting in the ongoing investigation into what she called ''suspicious activity.''

Willier was responsible for depositing the cash and had access to the unused ticket stock, which increased ''the risk for ticket revenue to be misappropriated and go undetected for an extended period of time,'' the audit said. Separate individuals should handle those functions in the future, it said.

The audit also questioned an informal arrangement in place at the time in which the Coralville Police Department delivered tickets to the train booth and picked up cash periodically throughout the day. At the end of the day, Willier would pick up the cash and tickets from the police department and take them to the ticket office. But the transfer of cash and tickets was not ''consistently documented and frequently has missing information.''

During the 2013 football season, the university hired an armored car company to deliver the cash and tickets, pick them up after the game and deposit money in the bank, the audit said.

The employees who were selling tickets in 2011 and handling cash for the train had not attended its cash handling training, and the athletics department did not have any specific cash-handling guidelines in place for the Hawkeye Express, the audit said. Many of the problems have since been fixed.

The university started operating the Hawkeye Express to help fans avoid traffic around the stadium. It's a throwback to decades earlier when fans took trains to the game from all over Iowa. The train is made up of six commuter cars and travels up to 35 mph during the 8-minute ride to the stadium.

The university will pay Hawkeye Express Company LLC $110,000 next season for the use of the train equipment, according to contract documents released Wednesday. Separately, the university pays Iowa Interstate Railroad $45,000 annually to provide a crew to operate the train.

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