An internal audit by the California State University reveals a pattern of questionable travel expenses by an employee in the university's risk management division, including a tour of a giraffe center in Kenya, excessive lodging costs at hotels in London and Tel Aviv and brief overnight stays in San Francisco, St. Louis and New York City that left no time for conducting business in those cities.
The university's Risk Management Authority, based at the Chancellor's Office in Long Beach, is responsible for assessing the liability of running educational programs around the world, said CSU spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp. Some international travel, he said, is a legitimate part of the job.
But the audit conducted in late 2012 and released on Wednesday uncovered travel expenses that "were often questionable in terms of their appropriateness and business necessity and did not always appear to have clear or demonstrable benefit to... the university," says a statement from CSU.
"Many of the ineligible or questionable expenditures have already been reimbursed by the employee, and the university is currently reviewing further appropriate action," the statement says.
The audit does not identify the employee. Uhlenkamp said the person remains on the CSU payroll. The university web site lists eight employees in the Risk Management Authority.
The audit says the employee incurred close to $159,000 in travel expenses during a 27-month period from July 2010 to September 2012. It does not say what portion of those expenses were inappropriate but points to several examples that were questionable or wasteful. Among them:
- Following a 2012 trip to Kenya, the employee submitted three receipts from sight-seeing destinations - including a giraffe center, a bead shop and the Nairobi National Park - and tried to legitimize them as taxi expenses. "Although the receipts indicate that the company provided hotel pickup, we believe referring to the expenses as taxi charges is a mischaracterization of their true nature as sightseeing tours," the audit says.
- The employee made 82 trips to San Francisco - allegedly for the purpose of working with a vendor there. In 61 of the cases, the employee arrived after 4 p.m. "As it is unlikely that any business was conducted on the day of arrival, we question the need for these overnight stays and whether sufficient work would actually have been conducted to justify the travel time and expense," the audit says, adding that in three cases the employee left town before 10:30 the next morning.
- The employee routinely maxed out the $55 per diem for meals during travel. "The total amount claimed for a full day frequently totaled exactly $55, and in several more instances was within $1 of this amount. It is highly unlikely for the total of three daily meals to equal exactly $55 on multiple occasions, and we therefore question the validity of the amounts," the audit says.
- On three occasions, the employee sought reimbursement for hotels within 25-miles of the CSU headquarters office in Long Beach. "In two of these cases, there was no explanation as to the need for a hotel stay. In the third case, the employee obtained a travel exception to stay at a hotel during a conference; however, the employee stayed six miles away from the conference hotel at a hotel that appeared to be slightly more expensive but was part of the employee's preferred hotel brand chain," the audit says.
- For a trip to Israel and Ghana in 2011, the employee claimed double the amount of expenses as a colleague who made the same trip. The audit says: "The main differences between the two claims related to lodging ($4,600 claimed by the employee versus $994 claimed by the colleague, who stayed at less expensive hotels and took advantage of lodging offered by local universities) and meals and incidentals (the employee claimed the full per diem amounts2 for all but four meals, for a total of $1,450, whereas the colleague claimed much lower amounts and far fewer meals because several of the meals had been provided, for a total of $260)."
- The employee made at least six trips between Los Angeles and San Diego by air when driving would have been less expensive and taken less time. "The cost of airfare, mileage to and from LAX, airport parking, and the rental car was $423. If the employee had driven a personal car from Long Beach, we estimate travel costs would have been about one-fourth that cost, or $106. If the employee had used a rental car, we estimate the two-day cost would have been approximately $62, plus fuel charges - still significantly less than the cost of flying," the audit says.
- The employee routinely used valet services and limos to get to and from airports when less expensive modes of travel were readily available.
CSU officials said they are cracking down on travel procedures in response to the audit
"Travel has been significantly curtailed and is being replaced with alternate technological means to conduct business, such as audio calls, video conferences, or Skype, when appropriate," says the management response to the audit.
CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White released a statement saying the audit points to "an inappropriate use of dollars by an employee."
"We will review our travel policies and practices to minimize any possibility of recurrence," White's statement says.
PHOTO: A giraffe and two baboons in a national park in Kenya, May 1999. Associated Press/Ravi Nessman
Editor's note: This post was updated at 4:50 p.m. to reflect that the trip to Ghana and Israel was in 2011.