- The Washington Times - Monday, September 27, 2004

The D.C. State Education Office has halted all travel-related expenses after a city audit found that managers spent taxpayer dollars on out-of-town trips unrelated to city business.

Deborah Gist, interim director of the State Education Office for the District (SEO), told city auditors in a letter earlier this month that she instituted the freeze while the office “works to revise and review internal travel procedures.”

The move came in response to a draft report by the D.C. auditor that uncovered improper travel expenses, misuse of federal grant money and poor management practices at the troubled education office.

“Certain employees were able to manipulate the system to obtain reimbursements for questionable travel … of a personal or self-serving nature rather than the performance of official business,” D.C. Auditor Deborah K. Nichols wrote in the final audit report on Wednesday.

The report, which does not identify managers responsible for misspending, found that education office employees failed to return travel advances on a canceled trip, were reimbursed twice for the same trip and improperly charged tens of thousands of dollars in other travel costs.

Auditors also found that state education officials misused federal grant funds intended to fund programs to feed schoolchildren. The report found $160,000 in funds earmarked for federal special nutrition programs paid for two unrelated administrative positions.

Cornelia V. Spinner resigned as director of the troubled state education office in June after calls for her removal by D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, who first requested the audit.

“The report confirms that children who were supposed to be benefiting from these programs were being cheated,” Mr. Mendelson said yesterday. “We need to reform that office and ensure that kids are benefiting from these nutritional programs.”

The state education office was created in 2000 to handle administrative tasks, such as free meal and tuition programs, that state education offices elsewhere normally oversee.

The audit examined the state education office finances during a 21/2-year period that ended in May.

Auditors criticized numerous trips by state education officials. In one case, five employees racked up $1,108 in charges during a two-day trip to Richmond. The employees stayed overnight even though their meeting at the Virginia State Education Office ended at 1 p.m. on the first day, according to the report.

“Considering that Richmond, Virginia, is less than 100 miles from Washington, D.C., … the administrative employees could have easily returned,” Mrs. Nichols wrote. “However, these SEO employees unjustifiably stayed overnight in Richmond.”

Among the reimbursement expenses was a receipt for gasoline at a station in North Carolina.

Auditors also questioned a trip by a manager to Tuskegee, Ala., between Dec. 23 and Jan. 3.

“The purpose of this trip did not appear to be primarily to conduct official District business,” Mrs. Nichols wrote. She said the trip appeared to be “nothing more than a scheme to obscure the improper disbursement of government funds.”

More than 10 percent of the education office’s $187,844 in travel expenses violated standard travel policies and procedures, auditors found. In addition, travel expense reports were not submitted for 89 percent of the trips taken by SEO officials.

Auditors also found that nearly $25,000 was charged to government-issued credit cards, even though city rules instituted in 2002 prohibit that practice.

In a Sept. 13 letter to Mrs. Nichols, Ms. Spinner questioned the audit findings. She said the report “sweeps regular staff training into the category of ‘travel.’ ”

“That illogical blending of fiscal categories presents an inaccurate budget picture and serves only to heighten a perceived deficiency, rather than render an accurate representation of the facts,” Ms. Spinner wrote.

She also said the D.C. Office of the Chief Financial Officer made an exception for the SEO to use government credit cards for travel, room and board.

Mr. Mendelson yesterday said he was “boggled” by Ms. Spinner’s letter.

“Thank God we have new leadership in there,” he said.

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