Athletic Director’s relative played key role in Wintrust agreements

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Athletic Director’s relative played key role in Wintrust agreements

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The Chief Marketing Officer from Wintrust Bank has confirmed that Wintrust Executive Vice President and sister-in-law of DePaul Athletic Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto, Kandace Lenti, was involved in the multi-million dollar Wintrust Arena naming rights agreement. DePaul officials have also confirmed that Jean Lenti Ponsetto never officially disclosed a conflict of interest form before engaging in the deal.

The 2017 Wintrust Arena agreement was touted by DePaul as a huge win for the university and Athletic Director Lenti Ponsetto. But there seems to be some family ties concerning Wintrust and Lenti Ponsetto that raise questions of nepotism and a potential conflict of interest.

Kandace Lenti is the Executive Vice President at Wintrust Bank. She was named by Crain’s as one of the 30 most influential women in Chicago banking and is credited on Crain’s website for helping to secure DePaul as a client.

Lenti is married to DePaul’s head softball coach, Eugene Lenti — also the brother of Lenti Ponsetto.

Although the details of the Wintrust agreement are confidential, it is estimated by Legends Sales and Marketing, a New York-based sponsorship consulting firm, that the naming rights deal could have been worth at least $22 million for DePaul. At around the same time, DePaul added Wintrust Bank as its exclusive on-campus banking institution to replace PNC Bank. Both the naming rights and banking agreement are potentially worth millions for both parties.

Under the agreement, Wintrust Bank is able to distribute and market to all of DePaul’s students, faculty, staff and alumni. Wintrust also received exclusive banking and ATM privileges on campus. With a total enrollment of over 22,000 students and a sizable alumni and faculty network, Wintrust gained access to a considerable number of potential new clients.

DePaul has a conflict of interest policy clearly outlined in its code of conduct that states, “DePaul requires all employees whose independence of judgment may be impaired by a potential conflict of interest to either refrain from the conflict or disclose the conflict to a supervisor.”

The conduct policy goes on to say, “In these and other situations, a completed Certificate of Compliance with Conflict of Interest Policy form (…) is to be completed and approved by the direct supervisor of the employee.”

But Lenti Ponsetto never disclosed a conflict of interest form, according to the university. 

When The DePaulia began investigating the connection between Lenti Ponsetto and Lenti, things got even murkier.

In order to best report this story, The Editorial Board decided to report our process and what it yielded.

Kandace Lenti’s connection

The DePaulia first approached Kandace Lenti on Tuesday, March 6. After identifying ourselves as reporters, Lenti said she was about to head into a meeting and directed The DePaulia to set up an appointment via email. She hung up the phone before The DePaulia could ask her any questions.

Kandace Lenti (left) of Wintrust Bank with her husband, head softball coach, Eugene.
Photo courtesy of Facebook

The DePaulia emailed Lenti minutes later, requesting an interview regarding the “Wintrust naming rights deal.”

“I don’t believe I would be the right person to talk to about that agreement at Wintrust,” Lenti wrote in an email. “I was not in the trenches of that agreement.”

The DePaulia then asked Lenti, again, to comment on her role in the Wintrust naming rights deal.

A day later, on Wednesday, March 7, at 2:39 p.m., The DePaulia received an email from Matt Doubleday, Chief Marketing Officer at Wintrust. Doubleday said that he would be “happy to answer” any questions The DePaulia had.

The DePaulia, instead, requested that Lenti respond to our questions herself and asked a third time.

On Friday, March 9, The DePaulia received a response from Doubleday. In his response, he said that Lenti is a “banker and the leader of Wintrust’s Government, non-profit & healthcare bank group.” He said that “(Lenti) counts DePaul University as one of her customers. If you have questions about banking, she’s a great person to know.”

Doubleday went on to say that he was the person to ask about “marketing, advertising and sponsorships,” and that he was the appropriate person to answer The DePaulia’s questions.

The DePaulia asked Doubleday, “Specifically, to what degree Kandace Lenti was involved in the naming rights deal for Wintrust Arena?”

Doubleday responded to The DePaulia the same day and did not refute that Lenti was involved in the negotiations. He said that Lenti’s “involvement on the Wintrust Arena naming rights was minimal.”

But Doubleday also said that “(Lenti) made introductions between DePaul and Wintrust leadership and attended most of the meetings we had.”

Doubleday also confirmed that Lenti was, in fact, the banker assigned to DePaul. Indeed, Lenti’s name appears on the banking agreement between DePaul and Wintrust, according to the agreement posted on DePaul’s website.

In the agreement, it states that “all notices” between the university and Wintrust should be sent to “ATTN: Kandace Lenti.” Lenti’s name appears twice in the agreement.

Jean Lenti Ponsetto’s connection

The DePaulia began the investigation into Lenti Ponsetto’s connection, by reaching out to a source who was involved in the day-to-day dealings concerning the Wintrust Arena naming rights deal. Due to reasons concerning their employment, the source wished to remain anonymous.

Wintrust Bank has five ATM’s throughout DePaul’s campus and access to the student body.
Jonathen Ballew | The DePaulia

The source said that Lenti Ponsetto was “involved in the process” and that she had a hand with “price points and deliverables.”

“Whatever is in the contract,” they said, “she was involved.”

On Wednesday, March 7, The DePaulia reached out to Greg Greenwell, Associate Athletic Director for Communications, asking if The DePaulia’s sports editor could ask Lenti Ponsetto “a couple of questions” after the DePaul Men’s Basketball game on Wednesday in New York City.

Greenwell responded by inquiring what questions The DePaulia wanted to ask Lenti Ponsetto. The DePaulia let Greenwell know we planned to ask about the Wintrust naming rights agreement.

After the game, Greenwell told The DePaulia that it was “not a good time” to speak with Lenti Ponsetto and that we could email him instead. Lenti Ponsetto did, however, have time to speak to the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday before the game.

The DePaulia emailed our questions to Greenwell but never received a response. Instead, we received a response from DePaul’s public relations department.

On Thursday, March 8, the DePaulia received an email response from Carol Hughes, of DePaul’s Office of Public Relations and Communications and one of DePaul’s top public relations officers, responding to The DePaulia on behalf of Lenti Ponsetto.

“The naming rights transaction was negotiated under the direction of the Board of Trustees by Jeff Bethke with the support of an external sports marketing firm who helped identify and recruit potential naming rights prospects,” Hughes wrote.

“DePaul Athletics assisted in providing corporate sponsorship and marketing elements and community outreach initiatives.”

On Friday, March 9, The DePaulia reached out again to Hughes asking, “Specifically, to what degree Jean Lenti Ponsetto was involved in the naming rights deal for Wintrust Arena.”

Hughes responded the same afternoon, saying, “We addressed that question in the previous response.”

Who is Jeff Bethke?

Jeff Bethke is the Executive Vice President at DePaul and was instrumental in the Wintrust agreement, according to Hughes and multiple other sources. The DePaulia reached out to Bethke’s office on Tuesday, March 6, and was told by a secretary that he was out of the office until Monday.

On the same day, The DePaulia emailed Bethke asking for Lenti Ponsetto’s role in the Wintrust naming rights agreement.

Bethke never responded, and on Thursday, March 8, Hughes contacted The DePaulia on behalf of Bethke.

In the past, Bethke has been very open and forthcoming with The DePaulia concerning the Wintrust agreement, talking to multiple DePaulia reporters.

Kandace Lenti’s name can be found twice on DePaul’s banking agreement with Wintrust.

Conclusion

At the conclusion of our reporting, The DePaulia asked Hughes a final question, on Friday, March 9 at 3:28 p.m.

“Did Jean Lenti Ponsetto at any point in time submit a conflict of interest form to her direct supervisor regarding her relationship with Kandace Lenti?” The DePaulia also requested that Hughes disclose the form if it existed.

On Friday, at 8:19 p.m., Hughes responded to The DePaulia with the following comment:

“(Lenti Ponsetto) was not required to complete a conflict of interest form.”

The DePaulia’s anonymous source said that while the lucrative banking and naming rights deals are not directly connected, they represent “a significant sponsorship relationship.”

The source said that “many different industries” other than Wintrust were approached by DePaul as possible partners. He said companies in the financial, auto, telecommunications and insurance industries were approached — these are the industries that typically sponsor major sporting venues.

Ultimately, Wintrust Arena was selected as the best sponsor and entered into a 15-year deal with DePaul.

“Our goal when this process started was to find a Chicago-based partner that holds similar beliefs and values to DePaul University,” Lenti Ponsetto told DePaul Newsline, DePaul’s public relations newswire service, in November, 2016. “And we feel we’ve accomplished that goal with Wintrust Arena.”

With family connections between Wintrust and the DePaul athletic department, it’s easy to see how the two could be a perfect fit.