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Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian testifies

Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian testifies in June in front of the Legislative Audit Committee in the state Capitol.

State lawmakers pressed Montana’s Commissioner of Higher Education to improve his office’s financial practices Tuesday.

Earlier this month, Montana’s Legislative Audit Division released a Fiscal Year 2018 report of the Commissioner of Higher Education’s Office, documenting thousands of dollars’ worth of inappropriate spending on meals and travel for employees and members of the Montana Board of Regents.

Improper expenses included an employee’s airline ticket from the United Kingdom to Colorado; a chartered flight from Helena to Glasgow, Montana; and excessive hotel stays in Bozeman the weekend of the 2017 Cat-Griz football game, according to the audit.

The audit also found inadequate “internal controls” on the $60 million Montana Family Education Savings Program and other office functions; and that the office had not followed proper procedures for spending nearly $100,000 in federal grant money on travel to conferences in Portland and Las Vegas.

“This audit, to me, was embarrassing on many levels,” said Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, at Tuesday’s hearing of the Legislative Audit Committee.

The Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education is the administration hub for the Montana University System and the Board of Regents, which governs the system. Roughly 23 state-paid employees work in the Commissioner's Office, along with additional staff funded from other sources.

There are seven regents appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate to unpaid board positions.

Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian repeatedly vowed to Brown and her colleagues that he would make improvements. The meeting was available via live stream.

“This audit has done what audits are supposed to do,” Christian said in his opening remarks. “It’s identified areas that we need to improve, it’s made recommendations [for] those improvements. We concur completely with those recommendations ... we will get those issues corrected.”

The auditor’s report detailed several expenses that had not been properly documented or justified. Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, asked Christian about the training that employees had previously received.

“There was training required beforehand,” Christian said, but he also acknowledged that “there was a practice of handing individuals a ProCard [for work-related expenses] and a stack of papers ... and I just don’t think those were digested fully.”

“We need to do a much better job of onboarding" new employees, he said. “We need to continue to follow up on that.”

Rep. Denise Hayman, D-Bozeman, brought up the office’s decision to use federal grant money to send a few dozen staff, and dozens of non-employees, to conferences in Portland and Las Vegas. In these cases, the auditor’s report found that the Commissioner’s Office “did not limit travel of non-employees for conferences for federal programs to the absolute minimum, as required by office policy.”

“What is ‘absolute minimum?’” Hayman asked.

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“We don’t have that well-defined,” Christian said. “That’s one of those things we can take a look at.” He said that these events were training and were an important part of the federal GEAR UP grant program. He said that the non-employees who attended worked for school districts.

Both Ellsworth and Brown questioned the Bozeman hotel rooms that the Commissioner’s Office booked during the November 2017 “Brawl of the Wild” football game weekend. The Board of Regents typically meets in the host city before that tournament, but the audit deemed four rooms booked Saturday — for one staffer and three regents, according to Christian — improper.

The Missoulian has asked the Montana State Auditor’s office to identify the public officials involved in inappropriate spending.

“I recognize that it’s a big football game, but I think it’s a real stretch to say these are big business meetings,” Brown said.

It remained unclear Tuesday whether the Commissioner's Office would face penalties or requests for repayment. But Brown and her colleagues said they expected the Commissioner’s Office to improve by next year’s audits. “It disappoints me to see an audit like this,” Hayman told Christian, “and I’m hoping that you will turn things around and we’ll have a great audit next year.”

“That’s a responsibility I gladly accept. That falls on my shoulders,” Christian replied. He has pledged to adopt the auditor’s recommendations by the end of the calendar year. “I’m disappointed in the audit myself. I can do better, and I will do better.”

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