UCF misallocated at least $48 million for unauthorized construction projects: Lawyer to investigate cause

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Rendering of the new $38 million Trevor Colbourn Hall at UCF.

The University of Central Florida (UCF) misspent at least $48 million intended for operating expenses to build the new Trevor Colbourn Hall, as well as other construction projects and improvements to existing buildings.

The misallocated funds include $38 million for the hall, replacing a dilapidated structure, and $10 million on existing buildings, as well as an additional $3.8 million in operating funds on renovation projects that may have violated state rules, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

UCF president Dale Whittaker and Board of Trustees members met Feb. 7 with an Atlanta attorney who will investigate the university’s use of state operating dollars on construction projects, including Trevor Colbourn Hall.

Board of Trustees chairman Marcos Marchena, who was on university’s finance and facilities committee at the time the new hall was approved, told his colleagues he was “incensed” they were misled about the money used to build the structure.

“At no time, did anyone on the staff give us any indication that the funding was from an unallowable source,” he said.

The funding problem first came to light in January when the auditor general’s office alerted UCF and the state university system’s Board of Governors.

Former university chief financial officer Bill Merck has taken “full and immediate responsibility,” UCF President Dale Whittaker said.

While he and Merck worked together closely, Whittaker said he was focused on academic matters while Merck was responsible for making sure the funding for initiatives came from the right sources.

Merck apparently drew money from the wrong fund because of the old building was deteriorating and the university didn’t have enough money to replace it, university leaders said.

Whittaker and Marchena said they’re not aware of anyone else who knew the university was using money from the wrong source to build Trevor Colbourn Hall, but the law firm’s investigation should determine whether others were involved.

“I think it is difficult for me to believe that only one person was aware that we were using inappropriate funds for those projects,” Marchena said.

If the investigation reveals others knowingly broke state rules or deceived trustees, Whittaker said they’ll be dismissed from the university.

Joseph Burby of the Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner law firm will lead the probe, with the university paying the lawyer $550 per hour for his services.

Burby and his colleagues will interview individuals involved in the construction process. The university will set up a public website with information and documents from the investigation and the attorneys’ contact information so people can reach them with tips.

The new Trevor Colbourn Hall, which opened last month, has classrooms, offices and study areas.

In addition to the new hall, Whittaker said the university had misused money from the education and general fund, which is designated for operating expenses, on three smaller projects totaling about $10 million during the past five years.

There’s no suggestion that architect Schenkel Shultz and general contractor Pirtle Construction Company, which built the Terry Colbourn Hall, and other construction service providers did anything wrong — the issue was with how university officials  redirected funds that were not authorized for the construction work.

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