Were expenses of the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education for recent meals, travel and lodging justified? It depends on who you ask.
Earlier this month, Montana’s Legislative Audit Division released a financial compliance report of the Commissioner's Office. It found that during Fiscal Year 2018, office staff and members of the university system’s governing Montana Board of Regents racked up thousands of dollars’ worth of spending that violated state policies and constituted “abuse of General Fund resources.”
The spending included hotel rooms during the 2017 Cat-Griz football game weekend, an airline ticket from Birmingham, England, to Denver, and a chartered flight from Helena to Glasgow. Clayton Christian, state Commissioner of Higher Education, responded to the findings by writing that he concurred with the audit's recommendations to improve internal controls and monitoring and would adopt them by the end of the year.
The Board of Regents chair whose tenure coincided with this spending said she appreciated that offer, but also suggested that some of this spending may have been justified. Fran Albrecht noted that the Regents are unpaid, and their travel costs "are minor when you realize the amount of effort and resources" they devote to their roles.
Members of the Montana Legislature and student government, however, are more skeptical.
“I’m unhappy about it,” said Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman. He both serves in the legislature and teaches at Montana State University–Bozeman. He, other faculty and students have chafed under MSU’s recent decision to combine its department of neuroscience and cell biology with the microbiology department. Administrators there bill it as a streamlining move, but Woods says it’s “effectively killing industry in my valley.”
The improper spending alleged in the report is on a much smaller scale, but Woods said it “just adds fuel to the fire.”
In recent years, funding for the state higher education system has largely been protected by both the governor's office and the Republican-controlled legislature. Woods is concerned this latest development will lead to greater skepticism.
“When the story is misuse of public funds, that casts doubt on all our public institutions, not just higher learning,” he said. Woods said he plans to ask Christian about both the audit and MSU’s decisions at the Education Interim Committee’s June 24 meeting.
"The legislature does not have much oversight over the university system,” he said. “Perhaps it should.”
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Mark Pershouse, chair of the University of Montana faculty Senate, considers it too early to comment on the findings.
Abbigail Belcher, president of the Associated Students of the University of Montana, wrote in an email that “although the findings of the audit were unfortunate, the initiative that [the Commissioner’s Office] is taking to put into practice new policies and procedures is a step in the right direction. It is expected that the Commissioner’s Office will continue to foster a sense of accountability concerning food and travel expenses."
The spending took place during the tenure of Albrecht, whose term recently ended. She emphasized she was speaking in a personal capacity when reached by phone Thursday.
Albrecht said she considers two of the expenditures the auditors found improper to have been justified given the circumstances — a chartered flight from Helena to Glasgow for meetings in eastern Montana, and four hotel rooms booked for an extra night after Board functions during the 2017 Cat-Griz football game.
The flights, she said, helped board members meet their responsibilities in far-flung locations throughout the state. She added that the hotel cost, “when taken out of context, can seem exorbitant, but ... attending other functions in support of institutions, and staying that night rather than a regent driving five hours to get home, that is not an unreasonable cost.” The names of the individuals who stayed in those hotel rooms were not readily available.
Rep. Woods said “I’m happy to listen to the context,” but he would defer to the auditor’s conclusions on compliance. Albrecht, for her part, said “I respect the auditor’s looking into it and appreciate the Commissioner’s offer to strengthen” oversight.
Casey Lozar, the Board’s current chair, declined to comment.
The problematic spending identified in the report involved both state and federal funds. The report did not identify the officials who had misused public resources by name, and it was not clear if any penalties would be levied against the Commissioner's Office or Board. Legislative auditor Angus Maciver declined to comment on the matter.
The state’s Legislative Audit Committee is scheduled to discuss the audit at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, June 25 at the State Capitol in Helena. Visit https://leg.mt.gov/audio-video/ for a live stream of the meeting.