Wintrust conflict of interest remains in question
April 2, 2018
The Follow Up
DePaul President A. Gabriel Esteban, responding to a story published March 12 in The DePaulia regarding a potential conflict of interest in the athletic department, said that Athletic Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto disclosed a conflict of interest form regarding her relationship to Wintrust Banker, Kandace Lenti, “out of an abundance of concern, just to make absolutely sure.” But Esteban contradicted a university statement from March 9 stating that Ponsetto “was not required to disclose a conflict of interest form.”
Although Esteban claimed the document exists, university officials have said that the disclosure form is “not public record,” and have refused to provide a copy to The DePaulia, after multiple requests.
Frank LoMonte, Director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida and the former executive director and current senior fellow of the Student Press Law Center in Washington D.C., said that the conflict of interest form could “absolutely be disclosed.”
“There is no privacy or confidentiality law that makes a form of that kind private,” he said. “That is a document that the university could discretionarily disclose and they should disclose it, now that the existence of the document is at issue.”
On March 12, The DePaulia published a story headlined “The Lenti Connection,” involving ties between Athletic Director Ponsetto and her sister-in-law and Wintrust banker, Kandace Lenti. Due to the opacity encountered during the investigation, The DePaulia decided to publish the reporting process. Since then, we have followed up on the role that Ponsetto played in the Wintrust negotiations.
In our original investigation, The DePaulia reached out to Ponsetto regarding her role in the Wintrust Arena naming rights deal. The deal is worth an estimated $22 million. We also reached out to DePaul Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, Jeff Bethke, for clarification.
In both cases, we were routed through DePaul’s public relations department. We were told Ponsetto was too busy to speak with us and Bethke was away from his office for the week.
Ultimately, on March 9, the university said that Ponsetto “was not required to complete a conflict of interest form.”
When The DePaulia sat down with Esteban, we asked, “In your opinion, did Jean Lenti Ponsetto’s connection to her sister-in-law Kandace Lenti present a potential conflict of interest?”
“No,” he said. “She wasn’t involved in any of the negotiations, whatsoever.”
Esteban denied claims made by our unnamed source, who said Ponsetto was involved with negotiations to include “price points and deliverables.”
Esteban said that “all individuals, including (Ponsetto)”, have been signing conflict of interest forms for a number of years, way before any of this, way before the topic of the Wintrust Arena came up.”
Esteban, again, said that Ponsetto did sign a conflict of interest form.
Thursday, March 29
Since Esteban said Ponsetto did in fact sign a specific conflict of interest form, we wanted to clarify why we were told, on March 9, that Ponsetto was not required to disclose a conflict of interest form.
The university response said that they apologized for providing “incomplete information on March 9.” They offered context, saying that “(…) the naming rights transaction was negotiated under the direction of Jeff Bethke, EVP and CFO, with the support of an external sports marketing firm (…).”
The university said that, “In her role as athletic director, Jean Lenti Ponsetto participated in the conversations and provided expertise, but had no vote.”
The university went on to say that Ponsetto completes an annual conflict of interest disclosure, as is “standard practice among university executives.”
“In addition, out of an abundance of transparency, Athletic Director Ponsetto submitted a supplemental certification in June 2017 — even though she was not required to do so because she was not the decision maker in the naming rights selection process nor does she have any involvement in the university’s banking relationship with the Wintrust. These disclosure forms are not public documents,” the university spokesperson wrote.
The DePaulia responded saying that, “We understand that the disclosure forms are not public documents. However, due to the nature of the story, we are formally requesting a copy.”
Friday, March 30
The DePaulia received a response from the university restating that “the disclosure forms are not public documents.”
The DePaulia responded, asking if the university was officially denying our request “to provide evidence that Jean Lenti Ponsetto signed a supplemental certification in June 2017.”
Although we had received communication earlier that morning, DePaul was closed for Good Friday, and we received an automated response saying that the official was out of the office until Monday.
We continued to reach out to the appropriate DePaul official by email and mobile phone but never received a response by our Sunday deadline.
At the crux of this story, is a conflict of interest form. While we were told on March 9 that Ponsetto was not required to fill out a conflict of interest form, on March 29, Esteban claimed it exists on multiple occasions.
In the interest of transparency, we have asked university officials multiple times to provide us a copy of the conflict of interest form. The university refused to provide a copy of that disclosure form, at the time of time of publication.
“They should absolutely disclose the document,” LoMonte said. “Now the existence of the document is an issue of community concern.”