- Associated Press - Friday, August 26, 2016

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - Two state legislators say they plan to investigate “excessive” spending by the Medical University of South Carolina’s unpaid governing board, following an investigation by The Post and Courier of Charleston.

The public university’s 16 trustees were reimbursed $560,000 over five years for spending on luxury hotels, dining and alcohol while in Charleston for meetings. That doesn’t include an additional $290,000 spent by the separate Board of Visitors, which has no governing role, the Charleston newspaper reported Friday (https://bit.ly/2bFPInK ).

Trustees’ hotel stays accounted for nearly $100,000 of the spending, with rooms at Charleston Place and Planters Inn. Other expenses during trustees’ six or so meetings annually included $37,400 on a 2014 Christmas banquet, $160 bottles of wine and dining at the city’s finest restaurants that regularly included trustees’ family members and other guests. “Board booze” was written across liquor store receipts.

University officials contend most of the reimbursements come from a private nonprofit corporation set up to benefit the medical university’s hospital, so it’s not public money.

“The only thing that state dollars are used for are per diem and mileage,” said MUSC spokeswoman Heather Woolwine.

Such reimbursements are illegal for other state employees on business trips. But an exemption in state law allows university trustees to set their own travel expense rates. It also allows public colleges to use money made from student athletics, activities, canteens and bookstores to reimburse trustees above normal per diems.

By law, non-college board members are limited to a $35 daily allowance plus $25 a day for meals and standard mileage. If they require a hotel room, they must abide by rates set by the federal government. Those rates vary by month and by city, but during high season in Charleston, they currently don’t exceed $203, before taxes.

“The exemption doesn’t justify extravagance,” said Columbia attorney Jay Bender, an expert on South Carolina’s open records laws. “The members of the MUSC board have equated public service to private privilege.”

The newspaper’s investigation found that, among South Carolina’s major public colleges, only Clemson University’s governing board spent more. The $750,000 its trustees spent since 2011 included more than $100,000 traveling to Tigers’ out-of-state football games.

The 22 trustees of the University of South Carolina, the state’s largest university, spent less than $400,000 in that time frame. They too spent more than $100,000 of that on football game travel.

The medical university’s 16 trustees are appointed by the governor or state legislators. Three are related to legislators.

Two prominent legislators told The Post and Courier they plan to formally investigate the matter after the Legislature returns in January. Senate Education Chairman John Courson, R-Columbia, called the expenses “excessive.”

GOP Rep. Jim Merrill of Charleston, chairman of Ways and Means’ higher education subcommittee, said no one expects trustees to stay in budget motels in Charleston, but “staying in the nicest hotels might be over the top.”

Only one board member was willing to comment to The Post and Courier. Barbara Johnson-Williams, who joined the group in 2013, described herself as too new to explain the board’s spending habits.

“I’m just getting there,” Johnson-Williams said. “I haven’t had a chance to look at what other boards are spending or how they may accommodate their board members.”

MUSC leaders say trustees follow spending and reimbursement guidelines they created in 2015. It includes picking up the tab for trustees’ guests if they have “a clear connection or future/potential connection to MUSC.”

A trustee has been asked to return money only once since 2011, Woolwine said.

That’s when University Medical Associates asked board member James Lemon to return $45.60 in August 2015 after reimbursing him $387 and $296 for dinners over two consecutive nights.


Information from: The Post and Courier, https://www.postandcourier.com

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