State auditor intervenes after WECT Investigates team notices questionable CFCC policy

State auditor is questioning blanket approval for travel spending at CFCC

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - While reviewing the minutes from Cape Fear Community College’s most recent Board of Trustees meeting, the WECT Investigates team noticed an item buried on page 14 that was, at the very least, odd. It called for “blanket travel approval” for the college president and trustees.

According to the minutes, the college adopted the blanket travel approval policy for the president in 2006 at the recommendation of the State Auditor, and expanded it to include trustees beginning in 2007. But when reached for comment, State Auditor Beth Wood tells WECT the State Auditor’s office did not and would not recommended such a thing.

“I would never recommend that there be blanket travel pre-authorizations for any organization that is spending state money. The reasons [CFCC officials] are giving you...number one are not true, and secondly this is a bad policy,” Wood said.

Wood said improper travel spending by a president at one of the state’s community college campuses prompted a 2005 hotline tip to the Auditor’s office. Investigators ultimately found the president in question had spent thousands of dollars over a period of years on travel to events that had nothing to do with college business. That president was required to repay the money, and the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) was counseled on how to more effectively manage travel spending moving forward.

The state auditor says travel by college administrators should be approved on an individual basis to ensure it’s in keeping with the mission of the college, and that blanket pre-approval defeats that purpose and could open the door to wasteful spending. Moreover, Wood says it’s in conflict with state law.

“The newly adopted resolution which allows blanket pre-authorization for travel does not allow for the travel to be assessed against the availability of budgeted funds, which is required by state statute...They’ve just eliminated, now, all checks and balances for travel that’s not an alliance with community college business…like travel to political events, or travel to very expensive conferences,” Wood explained.

At least in part, Cape Fear Community College used guidance from the state system to develop their policy. CFCC directed WECT to the following excerpt from the NCCCS policy manual:

“Blanket authorization for college presidents only – G.S. 115D-20(1) requires college presidents to report to the college’s board of trustees. Therefore, the College Board of trustees shall pre-authorize the President’s routine travel in the manner they see fit and determine the level of detail they require before authorizing travel, subject to State Board of Community College guidelines. In addition, in the interest of fiscal responsibility, it is the Board’s responsibility to examine the President’s travel at their discretion.”

After learning about the policy from WECT, Wood reached out to the State Community College Board to inform them of her concerns about their current policy. She’s also concerned that CFCC has taken the questionable policy one step further, by amending it to give the Board of Trustees blanket travel approval as well.

“You’ve got nine, 10, 12, 15, however many board members now just traveling at will with no oversight...absolutely no oversight,” Wood said.

When traveling on college businesses, college employees have to follow strict guidelines to have their meals, lodging and transportation covered with public money. But the policy at CFCC gives the President and Board much more latitude. The policy reads:

“James Morton, President of Cape Fear Community College, {and CFCC trustees} is {are} hereby authorized to engage in college-related travel throughout the term of his {their} service from one campus to another, to off-campus locations throughout the service area, to meetings at various locations within the state, to various in-state and out-of-state meetings and functions of the Commission on Colleges (CFCC’s primary accrediting agency), to occasional national meetings of the League for Innovation in Community Colleges, to state/regional/national meetings of the Association of Community College Trustees, to national meetings of the American Association of Community Colleges, and to other conferences and meetings that relate to specific initiatives being considered or undertaken by Cape Fear Community College.”

While there are restrictions on how much the president and trustees can spend on meals while traveling on college business, there are no limits on expenses for hotel rooms, for example. Nor is there an overall cap on travel spending; like local elected officials, they have to keep costs in check.

Wood noted that under the current policy, if concerns were to arise over the president or a trustee’s travel expenses, it would put a subordinate employee in the accounting department in the intimidating position of questioning their boss.

“We found this at one of our university...campuses," Wood shared as an example. "We had a dean who was getting the pre-authorization, and then once the pre-authorization was done for legitimate business travel for the university, he then changed his plans. Well then the accounts payable people were saying, ‘No, this is not what was signed off on you.’ And he said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ and scared them to death.”

When we first asked about the questionable policy allowing for blanket pre-authorization of travel for the president and trustees, CFCC Spokeswoman Sonya Johnson noted that it has been this way for years, and the 2020 vote was simply to “reauthorize” the policy. After we asked more questions, Johnson provided us with another policy from the Faculty and Staff Handbook that indicates trustees are required to get pre-approval for travel through the president’s office.

When asked why the college had conflicting policies, Johnson responded that “[t]hese two policies are not conflicting. The blanket pre-authorization policy does not conflict with the travel approval procedure.” Follow up inquiries seeking further clarification have not been answered.

State Auditor Beth Wood disagrees.

“The newly adopted resolution allows for any and all board members to travel at their discretion, which conflicts with the 2016 policy that requires a designation of board members allowed to travel...and is not in compliance with the North Carolina Community College System Office Travel Policy Guidelines," Wood explained.

The North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) tells WECT that CFCC can set its own policy for the president and board’s travel, but only if it is more restrictive than state guidelines. NCCCS did not respond to our question about what, if anything, they are doing in response to Wood’s concerns about their blanket pre-authorization policy for travel by college presidents. Wood said state statute requires travel to be assessed against the availability of budgeted funds.

CFCC Board Chair Pat Kusek did not respond to our request for comment on this story for over two weeks, but did call us shortly after this story had published online. She said, in practice, college trustees are doing very little travel. Former Trustee John Melia, who recently rolled off the board after six years of service, echoed the same sentiment.

While we could not get a clear explanation about the competing policies, Kusek agreed the wording is confusing and needs to be clarified. Kusek went on to say Board of Trustee policy and Jim Morton’s contract require the Board Chair to approve travel.

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