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Audit says embattled UDOT misspent $10K on hotels, food

Published May 15, 2012 6:59 pm

Agency says cash spent on hotels, meals was a misunderstanding, not willful violation of rules.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It isn't as big as other scandals that rocked the Utah Department of Transportation recently. But the state auditor says UDOT misspent $10,000 last year on hotel rooms and meals for employees attending training conferences near their homes.

UDOT spokesman Nile Easton says it wasn't an intentional violation of rules, but an inadvertent misstep caused by "a small number of employees … who didn't understand our policies."

Utah State Auditor Auston G. Johnson issued a report this month saying problems included paying $5,390 for hotel rooms for 17 employees at training conferences held within 50 miles of their normal work locations — including the department's 2011 annual conference held last November in Sandy. By state rules, they should have commuted from home.

"Some of these employees were traveling 40 miles, and didn't know they had to travel 50 miles" to qualify for state-paid hotel rooms, Easton said.

UDOT paid another $1,553 for 17 room nights at conference for employees who never showed up and failed to cancel their reservations — including $548 for five people whose normal commute was less than 50 miles from the conferences anyway.

On top of that, Johnson's audit says UDOT wrongly paid employees $3,457 in meal reimbursements for those conferences.

That included $1,942 for people who lived nearby and should have commuted from home, plus another $513 for people who stayed at a hotel that provided a free hot breakfast and — contrary to state rules — still asked for and received a meal allowance for breakfast.

UDOT also violated rules by paying more than $4 per person for refreshments during breaks at one conference, spending an extra $1 per person, or $362 extra.

The audit said that happened because UDOT mistakenly thought the hotel was charging it $3 per person for refreshments — even though it was really charging $4 per person — and it then ordered extra drinks that it incorrectly thought was within its budget.

On top of all that, the audit said UDOT overpaid a hotel for one conference by $3,867 by double paying for items listed in a detailed invoice that had been included in the overall bill. "A month later the hotel refunded UDOT for the overpayment; however, the error was not detected by UDOT due to the lack of a careful review," the audit report says.

The report about UDOT came from a review by Johnson of how well several different state agencies understand and comply with rules for travel reimbursement.

The review about UDOT concluded that "UDOT did not comply with all state policies and procedures related to travel and did not perform a careful review and approval of expenditures related to training and conferences in 2011."

UDOT said it agreed with the auditor's findings, and is taking steps to prevent a repeat of problems.

"We have discussed the findings with our senior leaders and our employees. As part of that, we have implemented additional checks on these processes, and are providing appropriate additional training to ensure these types of mistakes don't happen again," Easton said.

Of course, those problems come after other high-profile monetary problems at UDOT — including paying $13 million to a bidder who threatened a lawsuit contending it was cheated out of $1.1 billion contract to rebuild Interstate 15 in Utah County.

That contract went instead to a consortium that had made big campaign contributions to Gov. Gary Herbert, and won the project after UDOT officials tweaked the original scoring of bid proposals.

UDOT fired Denice Graham for supposedly leaking information about bids on that I-15 project, but an administrative law judge ruled that she did not release such information and was fired inappropriately. She recently was reinstated — but later moved to a different state agency — and paid $57,600 in legal fees and $43,516 in back pay minus taxes.

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis attacked UDOT and Herbert on Tuesday over the latest audit, plus the earlier problems.

"In what Governor Herbert continually calls the 'best managed state,' it is surprising that UDOT Director John Njord seems incapable of making basic employee policies about transportation and lodging reimbursements clear to his staff," he said. "Things do not get better. Hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars arrogantly wasted — $10,000 here, $100,000 in legal fees over a wrongfully fired employee, $13 million in the bidding scandal. What's next? "