BLOOMINGTON — Bloomington officials are not disclosing the nature of the concerns that led them to ask Illinois State Police to pursue an investigation of past financial operations of U.S. Cellular Coliseum.
"To protect the integrity of the ongoing criminal investigation, the city will not have any further comment related to these issues until the investigation is completed," city officials said in a news release Monday announcing the investigation.
The city staff first reported concerns to the state police several months ago. Officials would not say how long the investigation is expected to last.
McLean County State’s Attorney Jason Chambers said Monday that his office has assisted state police with securing documents. He declined to specify the material investigators asked for, or the method used to obtain it. The request for assistance came several months ago, he said.
Questions surfaced as the city was working to close the city-owned arena's financial books during the management transition from former operators Central Illinois Arena Management (CIAM) to the new managers, VenuWorks, Mayor Tari Renner told The Pantagraph in late August.
The investigation focuses on Coliseum operations while CIAM was in charge, according to the city's statement.
CIAM President John Butler issued a statement Monday in which he said he was "shocked and surprised" to learn of the investigation and promised to cooperate fully.
"The Coliseum staff was a professional staff and I am confident there has been no wrongdoing and at the most only differences (were) in interpretation of the management agreement," he wrote.
He said he offered to meet with city officials last week but was rebuffed. "I feel like I have been ambushed," he wrote.
CIAM operated the Coliseum from its 2006 opening until the firm's 10-year contract, which CIAM did not seek to renew, expired March 31. In June, the city signed a five-year contract with VenuWorks to manage the 7,000-seat arena.
As part of the management transition, city staff conducted extensive internal reviews and auditing, said City Manager David Hales.
"These reviews brought forward multiple areas of concern for city staff, which we promptly reported to the Illinois State Police in an effort to determine whether any unlawful conduct had occurred," said Hales in the statement.
As city staff and internal auditors reviewed and reported various issues, Police Chief Brendan Heffner said his department requested the assistance of state police to avoid the appearance of any conflicts.
"Several months ago, we had our first meeting with the Illinois State Police to report the city’s concerns and to request a more comprehensive investigation," said city attorney Jeff Jurgens. "Since that time, a small group from the city has been working very closely with the state police and we will continue to do so through the completion of the investigation."
In addition to the annual audits, the city brought in specialized internal auditors in 2015 for assistance in reviewing various Coliseum accounting and operational issues because of negotiations with CIAM over a possible new contract, said Hales.
"Although the Coliseum’s accounts are audited every year by an independent audit firm and have received a clean opinion each year, the contract negotiation and management transition allowed us to do a much deeper dive," Hales said.
"This work was performed by the Bronner Group, who started working with the city on a special audit of the Coliseum contract in March 2015," he said.
State police declined to comment on Monday, saying, "This case remains an open and ongoing investigation. No further information is being released at this time."
"I would also call on our community to wait for all of the facts and avoid a rush to judgment," Renner said in the statement. "This is not the time for politics or half-truths. There are professionals involved, and we need to let them do their job without interference.
"We bring the announcement of the investigation forward now in the interest of transparency and anticipating it may have become public in the near future as the criminal investigation continues," said Renner.
Hales said replacing CIAM's 10-year-old management contract with a new agreement that contains clear terms and conditions, as well as safeguards for the city "was real triumph and turning point."
"The management agreement we have with the city, in terms of oversight and clear directive, is probably one of the strongest our company has out of the approximately 50 different venues we serve," added Curtis Webb, VenuWorks' executive director at the Coliseum.