UCF president offers to resign following allegations of almost $85 million in construction project misappropriations

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trevor coburn hall
Trevor Coburn Hall

University of Central Florida (UFC) president Dale Whittaker has offered to resign relating to investigations about the misappropriation of almost $85 million for construction projects.

Whittaker has held the post less than eight months. The scandal involving use of state funds for unauthorized construction projects, has drawn criticism from the state Legislature and Board of Governors, which oversees Florida’s university system.

The issue is the misappropriation of operating funds to build new structures, notably the $38 million Trevor Coburn Hall.

In his resignation letter sent on Feb. 21 to UCF trustees, Whittaker wrote that “it has been made clear to me that one additional step is needed — I have concluded that for UCF to succeed with our state leaders in the future, new leadership will be required.”

The Board of Trustees will meet to discuss the matter soon, chairman Robert Garvy wrote in a letter to his colleagues, The Orlando Sentinel reported. Whittaker had been expected to testify at a Florida House Public Integrity and Ethics committee meeting that date in Tallahassee, but the Feb. 20 hearing was canceled.

The Board of Trustees selected Whittaker, 57, last March to become the university’s fifth president. Whittaker, who had been the university’s provost since 2014, was the only internal candidate who applied for the post. An inauguration ceremony planned for Feb. 26 has been canceled.

As recently as mid-February, a majority of the trustees said they wanted Whittaker to serve out the remainder of his four-year contract. “UCF has a bright future, and I am in it for the long haul,” he wrote on Feb. 12 in an email to the Sentinel.

The House Public Integrity and Ethics committee had sent earlier in February subpoenas to Whittaker, former president John Hitt, former Board of Trustees chairman Marcos Marchena, former chief financial officer Bill Merck and 10 other current or former employees. Committee staffers interviewed several university employees in meetings that were closed to the public, the newspaper reported.

Rep. Tom Leek, R-Ormond Beach, said Whittaker’s decision to step aside was “for the good of the institution.”

“I echo the sentiments of the Speaker and reaffirm our commitment as an investigative committee to leave no stone unturned in seeking the facts and holding the right people accountable,” Leek wrote. “I believe President Whittaker was placed in his position at an inopportune time and much of what occurred was already underway. But as the Speaker said, ultimate responsibility rests with the executive.”

The problems with the university’s construction spending first came to light in the summer, when the state auditor general’s office found that the university had budgeted $38 million intended for operating expenses to build Trevor Colbourn Hall, an academic building that opened in August. Whittaker told the Board of Governors in September that Merck had taken “immediate and full responsibility” for the misspending. He resigned that day.

Since then, university leaders have acknowledged the school spent or planned to spend a total of $84.7 million in leftover operating funds. Last month, Whittaker said four high-ranking administrators would be terminated after Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, a law firm hired by the university to investigate the matter determined they were involved in the decision to misuse state money.

However Whittaker, who was provost during the planning process for the new building, has maintained that he didn’t know his colleagues were using state dollars for the wrong purpose. The law firm found Whittaker was heavily involved in the planning process for the new building, but investigators doubted he knowingly broke state rules.

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.

Whittaker and the Board of Trustees members met Feb. 7 with an Atlanta attorney contracted to investigate the matter.

Board of Trustees chairman 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.

While Whittaker and former chief financial officer 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 law firm has been leading the probe, with the university paying the lawyer $550 per hour for his services.

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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