University construction misappropriation scandal spreads to other campuses: Report

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trevor coburn hall
Trevor Coburn Hall

Two Florida lawmakers are seeking legislation to more more firmly regulate state universities following the University of Central Florida (UCF) construction funding scandal, the Orlando Sentinel reports. Meanwhile, a Politico report indicated the controversy could grow to snare four other universities.

Rep. Randy Fine and Rep. Tom Leek’s remarks suggest there could be significant changes in how Florida’s universities operate because of the controversy about misspent funds. UCF president Dale Whittaker has already resigned after investigators discovered university administrators had misallocated operating funds for capital funds including the $38 million Trevor Colbourn Hall.

Leek (R-Ormond Beach) has summoned 14 current and former UCF officials as part of a probe. He told the Sentinel that a report about UCF’s misspent funds should be released within two weeks and it would contain recommendations for “internal controls” at all universities. He declined to provide specifics.

“You have to be good stewards of the public’s money. To the extent they have not been good stewards of the public’s money it makes it more difficult to trust them with more public money,” Leek said, referencing Whittaker’s resignation as well as that of Marcos Marchena, the former board of trustees chairman. “That said, I think the most impactful thing they have done is put a fresh face on the university. And by putting a fresh face on the university they get a chance to start over.”

Meanwhile Fine (R-Palm Bay), who chairs the House’ Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said he wants to look into giving the Legislature more control over the higher education budget and to provide training for university officials who oversee school finances.

“Illegal actions only happen in the absence of proper internal controls,” Fine was quoted as saying. “And in at least two instances for sure, UCF and USF, illegal spending happened. Whether it’s two, or three, or six (schools), any illegal spending of taxpayers’ money is not okay.”

The Sentinel reported that Fine was referring to investigations into UCF and the University of South Florida, the only two schools to have admitted state dollars were misspent for construction projects, and the University of Florida, which confirmed last week to the Gainesville Sun that school officials are investigating a potential misuse of $3 million on a new recreation center and parking lot.

The staff director for the House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee, Don Rubottom, flagged 23 university building projects amounting to more than $252 million in last year’s budget “that might have been funded at least partially with money tied to school operations,” Politico reported.

None of the mis-spending reports indicate any unethical behaviour about contractors and designers; the issue relates to the misappropriation of operating funds capital projects by university leaders and managers.

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