COLUMBUS, Ohio — At least 50 used-car transactions involving Ohio State University athletes and family members and a former Columbus car salesman will be the focus of a new investigation by the school’s athletic department. Doug Archie, OSU’s associate athletic director and head of compliance, made the announcement in response to a story that appeared in The Columbus Dispatch last week.

Reporters had accessed public records filed with the state’s motor vehicle bureau after noticing Aaron Kniffin, a car salesman, attended three Ohio State football games as the guest of players in 2007. Kniffin, 42, worked for Columbus’ Jack Maxton Chevrolet from 2004 to 2009 and Auto Direct in 2009 and 2010.

The story identified 24 transactions in which the purchase price listed on each vehicle’s title was significantly less than the actual value of the car. One of the titles even listed the purchase price as zero dollars. That vehicle, a 2007 Chrysler 300 with fewer than 20,000 miles on the odometer, was sold in 2009 to then-sophomore Buckeye linebacker Thaddeus Gibson. The player denied it was a gift from the dealership.

Kniffin was working for Jack Maxton Chevrolet at the time of the sale. In a joint Dispatch interview with Jason Goss, the owner of Auto Direct, Maxton owner Jeff Mauk said he couldn’t explain the price. “I don’t give cars for free,” Mauk said.

Goss also was surprised by the results of the investigation, which found that at least half the prices in the transactions reviewed were well below values estimated by National Automobile Dealer Association and Kelly Blue Book guides at the time of sale. Ohio law does not regulate prices set by dealers, but does require that the purchase price be accurately reported for tax purposes.

Goss pointed out that he is able to sell vehicles at a discount because he knows “how to buy cars right” and that “No one can tell you what a car’s worth.”

When contacted by The Dispatch, Kniffin said that the paperwork for some transactions might not reflect the actual purchase price. When asked how he happened to be the salesman for so many purchases made by OSU athletes and their relatives, Kniffin claimed that Archie’s office referred them to him. He then elaborated further, asserting that OSU officials reviewed the paperwork for each transaction before any sales were finalized.

Goss and Archie both disputed Kniffin’s account. Goss said that the titles for vehicles sold at his store reflect the sale price. Archie said that he had spoken to Kniffin only once and that he never reviewed paperwork or referred players to any dealership. He said that his office was only made aware of sales to players — never to their relatives — and would “spot check” the purchase price against used-car guide values.

Archie told The Dispatch that he has yet to uncover evidence that would lead him “to believe a violation has occurred,” but any appearance of impropriety is likely to reflect poorly on an already embattled athletic department.

Head football coach Jim Tressel and six players, including star quarterback Terrelle Pryor, were suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season after it was revealed that the players had traded football memorabilia for free tattoos and, in one case, a vehicle. Four of the six suspended players also purchased a vehicle from John Maxton Chevrolet or Auto Direct, according to The Dispatch.

In 2003, former Buckeyes running back Maurice Clarett pled guilty to a lesser charge after admitting he had filed a false report with Columbus police. Clarett had claimed that $10,000 worth of clothing, CDs and stereo equipment had been stolen from a car borrowed from a local dealership.

The Dispatch story noted that the NCAA has sanctioned six major university programs for charges related to free loaner vehicles or “suspect deals” since 1990.

To read the story that appeared in the Columbus Dispatch, click here.