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State audit criticizes DHE's $60 meals, cell phone use, and dinner parties.

September 13, 2002
By: Jason McLure
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Employees of Missouri's Higher Education Department billed the state for dinner bills as high as $60 per person and individual lunch bills as high as $47, according to a report released by State Auditor Claire McCaskill.

The audit also reported the department had done a poor job overseeing employee cell phone use, sponsored expensive dinner parties for state officials and legislators, failed to verify student eligibility for scholarships, and overspent its Charles Gallagher student aid program by $70,000.

The report noted twenty-five instances between July, 1999 and February, 2002 when DHE employees rang up lunch bills higher than $30, dinner bills higher than $40, or billed the state for meals served at an employee's home.

Joe Martin, associate commissioner of the DHE, acknowledged the expenses and said the department had been lacking a clear meals policy. He said steps have been taken to prevent similar occurrences in the future.

"We've drafted a policy on this issue and are now using the state's guidelines," Martin said. He added that the department's 2002 food budget had been reduced by 45 percent from 2000.

The report also highlighted poor management of state cell phones by DHE staffers. Two cell phones, each costing the state more than $300 annually, were used for fewer than four hours a year.

Two other phones used by the DHE each cost the state an average of over $200 a month for exceeding the minutes on their calling plans.

The audit was also critical of two "Women in Public Service" dinners held at the home of Commissioner Kala Stroup in February, 2000 and April, 2001. It reported that 40-50 high ranking female legislators and state officials attended the dinners, for which the state was billed $18-$20 per person.

The report concluded that the dinners, which cost the state a total of $1,520, had no "compelling business purpose" for the DHE, as only five of the attendees worked for the department.

In response the DHE issued a statement which said the purpose of the 2000 dinner was to introduce women college and university presidents to women legislators and state officials, and the 2001 dinner was to introduce the new director of Missouri Student Assistance Resource Services to a similar group.

Stroup was not available for comment. In June of this year she resigned as DHE commissioner effective September 15. She has been hired as the president of American Humanics, a Kansas City based organization which prepares college students for careers in the nonprofit sector.

Martin said the department was not planning to continue the "Women in Public Service" dinners.

The report was also critical of Stroup's use of a state vehicle assigned to her. It noted that in violation of state policy, no mileage log had been kept for the vehicle, and that records of gas purchases indicated it had been used several times to commute to Stroup's home in Kansas.

In response, the DHE said that Stroup had used the vehicle for trips to Kansas several times for business with that state's Board of Regents in Topeka, and had spent the night at her home to save the state hotel expenses.

The audit also noted that while the DHE passed out $83.3 million in financial aid to college students between 1999 and 2001, it did not verify whether the students receiving the aid were eligible. Instead, the DHE used data provided solely by the state's colleges and universities.

Additionally, the audit noted that the DHE had done a poor job of managing its Charles Gallagher scholarship program in 2001, and had been forced to take $70,000 out of its 2002 budget to cover student scholarships from last year.

The DHE acknowledged the criticisms, but said it would be difficult to monitor universities more closely, as budget cuts had reduced the staff available for the job by 34 percent.

Martin said the DHE has already responded to many of the concerns raised by the audit. "We have already implemented policies addressing many of these issues," he said. "And we will be acting on the remaining issues to address the audit's concerns."