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Published: Sunday, 6/17/2007

University of Toledo removed monitor of athletic spending

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Suzette Fronk helped reduce the deficit in the University of Toledo's athletic department. Her post was cut in May. Suzette Fronk helped reduce the deficit in the University of Toledo's athletic department. Her post was cut in May.
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Suzette Fronk was sent to the athletic department at the University of Toledo for simple reasons - to deal with a deficit and get a handle on sports spending.

The former business manager of the college of engineering was moved to the athletic department in May, 2001, on a special assignment, according to UT records. By October of that year, she was made an assistant athletic director for business affairs.

According to her hiring notice, Ms. Fronk was charged with "assisting the athletic director with financial planning [including revenue and cost projections]; providing budget control; and managing transaction-processing functions."

For seven years that's what Ms. Fronk did, achieving early success in helping the athletic department to erase its annual deficits.

But in the last two years, athletic records and internal e-mails obtained by The Blade show, she faced greater resistance from within the department in her efforts to control costs.

She voiced concerns to university athletic and finance officials over who could travel with athletic teams to sporting events on UT's dime; she challenged the charges coaches put on their university-issued credit cards, and she questioned contracts negotiated by coaches that would have deprived UT of money it was owed, all while the department's books were sliding into red ink.

"She was the only check and balance they had in that department," said Kevin Greenfield, Ms. Fronk's attorney.

As of this week, the UT athletic department is facing a $1.5 million budget deficit, the university's president is demanding tighter controls on athletic spending and policies, and the department is seeking an additional $667,116 in student general fees to help balance the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.

And since May 15, Ms. Fronk has been out of a job.

Dr. Lloyd Jacobs, UT's president, announced last week a major shake-up within the athletic department, removing some functions from the department and ordering Athletic Director Mike O'Brien to get more control over the areas that remained under his jurisdiction.

The president said some of the moves he made were the result of an internal, ongoing investigation into the athletic department, which he admitted began in part because of questions Ms. Fronk raised during her time as the department's business manager.

But despite the turmoil surrounding the athletic department, and specifically its spending practices, Ms. Fronk was the one who was shown the door.

The letter informing Ms. Fronk of her termination cited the "reorganization related to the merger of the University of Toledo and the Medical University of Ohio," and Dr. Jacobs said her duties were being shifted to the UT finance department.

"She was not fired," Dr. Jacobs said. "[There was] absolutely no retaliation. I know the whistle blower laws too well to allow anybody to fall into that kind of a violation."

Ms. Fronk said when she first joined athletics, she found fiscal mismanagement within the department and accounting practices that differed from the university's practices.

Mr. O'Brien was hired in January, 2002, and he and Ms. Fronk began to chip away at the department's debt.

Mr. O'Brien announced in September, 2005, that the department finished the 2004-05 year with a surplus of $862,908, the second consecutive year the department finished with a surplus, and its debt had been trimmed from $4.6 million in 2003 to about $2.9 million.

Mr. O'Brien praised Ms. Fronk for her role in the department's financial turnaround, writing in a Sept. 14, 2005, e-mail to her: "Please realize that I know you have been a real key to this progress."

But by the time Mr. O'Brien wrote that e-mail, Ms. Fronk had already begun to notice what she considered questionable spending practices and abuses of UT policies.

And according to Ms. Fronk and university e-mails, she was often challenged by athletic officials when she voiced her concerns.

In July, 2005, Mr. O'Brien sent Ms. Fronk an e-mail chastizing her: "Please do not copy finance and budget on our, what I would describe, internal issues."

Shortly thereafter, Ms. Fronk declined to reimburse football coaches for a trip they took to Germany in May, 2005, to assist a former UT player with a football skills and coaches clinic.

Head football coach Tom Amstutz and some of his assistants paid for their own flights, but used their UT credit cards to pay for hotels, rental cars, and other expenses. They also spent some their own cash, figuring the university would reimburse them.

In an e-mail to Ms. Fronk dated Aug. 2, 2005, Brian Lutz, the athletic department's compliance director, wrote that he informed Mr. Amstutz that he wasn't certain the university could reimburse the travel costs because the trip to Germany was not for a UT-sponsored clinic.

That same day Ms. Fronk notified Mr. Amstutz, Mr. O'Brien, and others that the coaches' personal expenses wouldn't be reimbursed and their credit card charges needed to be repaid.

Yet, e-mails show that the coaches fought the ruling for almost a year, a decision that was supported by UT Financial Controller Tom Page.

Mr. O'Brien eventually had the coaches reimbursed with money he controlled at the UT Foundation.

"That took a year to resolve because even though I said we would not reimburse them, Mike O'Brien and [Senior Associate Athletic Director] Mike Karabin kept bringing it back to me," Ms. Fronk said. "And in fact, they stopped coming to me and went to Tom Page directly, and Tom Page told them the same thing."

Ms. Fronk had other fights with the football team regarding spending.

A $3,000 charge for dry cleaning was placed on Mr. Amstutz's UT credit card last season for cleaning his and his assistant coaches gameday clothing.

Ms. Fronk rejected the charge, saying that university policy did not allow public money to be spent for cleaning work clothes.

The university previously had an agreement with a local dry cleaning business that allowed the coaches to get their UT coaching shirts and pants dry cleaned in exchange for free advertising. That agreement expired, and Mr. Amstutz put the cost for the dry cleaning on his charge card.

Mr. Amstutz said last week that he didn't know what arrangement his coaches would have for their dry cleaning this season.

Also last season, Mr. Amstutz decided that his team would not fly to an away game at Northern Illinois, a move that was going to save UT $90,000.

Following that decision, Ms. Fronk advised Mr. O'Brien, the coach, and his staff to hold onto that money until closer to the end of the fiscal year because of budget concerns facing the team and the entire department.

The football office argued that the $100,000 it had allocated for equipment in 2006 was not enough and wanted to use some of that $90,000 to cover equipment purchases.

The team ended up proposing to spend over $154,000 on equipment, including about $21,500 on coaches' clothing, and Mr. O'Brien told Ms. Fronk to approve the purchases.

When asked last week by The Blade about that spending decision when his department was facing a growing deficit, Mr. O'Brien said: "If that's what occurred, that wasn't a very sound fiscal decision on my part. That's something we learn from and not to do in the future."

In a February e-mail, Ms. Fronk raised yet another spending issue - allowing wives of football coaches and graduate assistants for the first time to attend all recruiting events, dinners, and socials.

She informed Mr. O'Brien the meals were "averaging between $45 - $50 per head" with five to eight wives in attendance for each meal. At the time, football program expenses were running a deficit of $80,917.

The next day, on Feb. 7, Mr. O'Brien send Ms. Fronk a short reply: "I approve the meals for the wives in attendance."

In addition, Ms. Fronk wondered why she hadn't received payments for the wives of coaches and athletic department staff, as well as other nonessential personnel, who accompanied the men's basketball team to the Virgin Islands last November.

Ms. Fronk went to finance department officials to ask whether she should bill for trips with the team taken by people other than players, coaches, team support staff, and athletic department members, and was ultimately ordered to do so by Senior Vice President for Finance and Strategy Daniel Morissette.

When Ms. Fronk sent out an e-mail informing athletic and finance department officials that she was going to issue invoices to all nonessential personnel who traveled with the team to the Virgin Islands, Mr. O'Brien issued two angry replies.

He first wrote: "To anyone who cares, this is BS. I have indicated in an e-mail to Dan as to what I think of this. I wonder if Ohio State does this! Great for campus moral."



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