Auditors knock University of Nebraska’s expensive world travelers

Written by Deena Winter on December 19, 2014


LINCOLN, Neb. — The University of Nebraska has been dinged by the state auditor for allowing employees to spend nearly $96,000 on 20 first-class flights around the world, book $300-a-night oceanfront resort rooms for a week and get reimbursed for alcohol while traveling, in violation of state law.

While digging through travel records, auditors found 20 first-class airline tickets costing nearly $96,000 charged by the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

The state accounting manual requires reimbursement for flights be limited to coach fare, if it’s available. No reasons were given for the upgrades, according to State Auditor Mike Foley’s letter to the university.

Jack Gould, issues chairman for Common Cause Nebraska, said it’s not clear how widespread such high-flying spending is, but NU staffers should always be mindful.

“If you want to upgrade, that’s fine, but you should do it at your own expense,” he said of first-class flights. “Or if you want to have the finest room in the hotel, if you can afford it, go ahead. But you shouldn’t be putting the price on the university. Pay the difference.”

He said university employees need to remember they’re spending taxpayer dollars and tuition of “students working two, three jobs.”

“Those people are working hard out there, they’re not living first-class,” Gould said.

Among the first-class UNMC trips:
• Two $3,325 flights to FrankFurt, Germany, in August 2013.
• A $5,870 flight to Turkey and then Oman in November 2013.
• A $4,341 flight to Switzerland, then San Francisco, then Hawaii, then Los Angeles, New Jersey and Milan, Italy, in July.
• An $8,355 flight to Frankfurt, Germany, and on to Nigeria in January.
• A $4,951 flight to Poland and Germany in January.
• A $7,103 flight to Germany in February-March.
• A $6,017 flight from Switzerland to San Francisco, Hawaii, back to Los Angeles and Switzerland in July.
• A $6,517 flight to Germany in April.
• A $5,676 flight to Morocco and Paris in May.
• A $8,566 flight to Paris, Tanzania and the Netherlands in June.
• A $4,953 flight to the Netherlands and India in June.
• A $6,984 flight to Paris, Morocco, Tanzania, the Netherlands in June.
• A $7,929 flight to Germany and India in September.
• A $6,267 flight to Germany and India in September.

Auditors said the university should require adequate support for such expenses and “ensure only reasonable items are reimbursed or paid for with university funds.”

NU spokeswoman Melissa Lee said the cases cited by the auditor represent a small share of total travel.

“It’s among our highest priorities to be responsible stewards of our resources,” Lee said via email. “We’re confident in the policies we have in place for reporting travel.”

Auditors tested 12 flights purchased by University of Nebraska-Lincoln employees through its vendor, Travel and Transport, and found it lacking in monitoring and controls, allowing employees to book flights without regard to price. Employees could select an airline, number of stops, seat assignment (such as business or first class) and the date and time of departures and arrivals without university review to ensure flights weren’t bought for family members or non-university personnel.

A total of $6.7 million in airfare was purchased through Travel and Transport in the 2014 fiscal year.

Auditors also said the university should better monitor lodging booked through Hotels.com to ensure the most economical lodging is chosen and isn’t purchased for family members or non-university personnel. In 2014, nearly $300,000 in hotel purchases were made through the website.

In its response to the auditor’s letter, the university disagreed with auditors mentioning the total amount spent on flights and hotels, saying it “invites the reader to mistakenly extrapolate the findings to the total population, which is misleading.”

In one case, two employees chose to upgrade to oceanfront rooms rather than the standard resort view or terrace view rooms, which cost $265 and $189 per night, for seven nights.

Auditors said the university should only reimburse for “reasonable” lodging costs, unless there’s an “adequately documented reason for the additional expense.”

Auditors reviewed 87 travel documents, and questioned the cost of a professor’s travels to California and Arizona. The professor attended an educational conference in San Diego in November 2013, but rather than flying to San Diego, flew to Phoenix, Ariz., two days early, rented a car, drove to San Diego, left early and drove back to Phoenix to give a presentation at Arizona State University before flying back to Lincoln.

The professor said it was cheaper to fly to Phoenix, rent a car and drive to San Diego and back, but provided no documentation. State auditors estimated it would have been $728 cheaper to fly to San Diego, then Phoenix, not counting the four days spent driving between the cities.

Another university employee drove from Omaha to Denver, Colo., and then “inexplicably” flew from Denver to Aspen — 160 miles away — for $495. The cost of reimbursing mileage would have been $178.

“The university should not reimburse avoidable or extravagant costs arising from arrangements, including more expensive or indirect flights and longer stays than required, that needlessly increase travel expenses,” Foley’s letter to the university said.

The state accounting manual forbids reimbursement for alcoholic beverages during travel, but auditors found alcohol purchases with meals.

One meal in Turkey included a $22 charge for “Alkoll,” which is “alcohol” in Turkish.

Auditors recommended the university do a better job of reviewing and translating documents in foreign languages.

The university responded to auditors by saying it’s their policy to reimburse employees for actual travel expenses if “reasonable, appropriate, and beneficial to the university” and they believe their policies meet statutory requirements.

UNL Spokesman Steve Smith noted the issues are a tiny fraction of the 42,000 travel transactions UNL processes annually, totaling $23 million.

“We continually strive to improve our processes and services to our travelers, and we are pleased that the auditor’s findings again this year for UNL are few and small in dollar amount. For example, the findings related to meal reimbursements total $291 and five missing receipts. This encourages us to maintain our focus on efficiently using the funds with which we are entrusted.”

Read more at Nebraska Watchdog.

Office: Common Cause Nebraska

Issues: Ethics, Ethics

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