Utah State University looking for possible fraud at all satellite campuses after employee paid $157k without working

The school said it will review all of its locations outside of the main campus in Logan. It’s a major step after a damning audit found misspending in Price.

In the fallout of discovering an employee had been paid for two years he didn’t work, Utah State University will now review all of its satellite campuses as a check for other potential fraud.

It’s a significant step as the school tries to course-correct from the explosive findings out of its Price campus that were detailed in an internal audit and reported on by The Salt Lake Tribune this week.

Auditors found that Warren Tyler Agner, an employee at USU Eastern, was close friends with administrators — who covered up for him and allowed him to continue collecting paychecks while not doing his job. In the end, Agner was paid more than $157,000 in salary and benefits from public funds that he did nothing to earn and that the school says likely cannot be recouped.

The report paints a picture of fraud and favoritism at the small campus, as well as poor accounting practices with the programs Agner was supposed to oversee — Custom Fit and the Small Business Development Center — that aim to support up-and-coming businesses in the rural region.

In its announcement Tuesday, the school said it stands by the “action it has taken to hold employees accountable for failing to perform their required duties and failing to comply with USU policies.” But, the school added, its further review of that Price campus and all others outside of the school’s main location in Logan will start this summer.

“Included in this review are possible improvements to employee oversight, best management practices of the Custom Fit program and other funded programs, and above all how best to serve our students across Utah,” the school wrote in a news release.

The Tribune had previously asked a USU spokesperson if the school intended to investigate further and was initially told, “USU completed a thorough audit” of the matter.

Now the comprehensive review will include the 29 smaller campuses USU has spread across the state from Tremonton to Tooele, from St. George to Blanding, which it calls its “Statewide enterprise.” The school’s website for those locations says: “You can access the same quality degrees, faculty, research, and Aggie spirit statewide.”

The topics for the reviews at the other campuses correlate with what auditors found at the Price location, which sits 200 miles away from Logan and which current and former employees said is often off the radar for the main USU administration in northern Utah — allegedly allowing for the issues with Agner, who was hired for the business specialist position in July 2021, to carry on for as long as they did without intervention.

That’s despite several employees repeatedly trying to report and have the problem of his absence addressed since at least summer 2022. They submitted complaints to the school’s HR office and several administrators, to officials at the Utah System of Higher Education and to federal investigators.

But it wasn’t until July 2023 that the school started an internal audit, prompted by the Utah Attorney General’s Office, which received a tip about the situation that alleged “fraud is being committed.”

In its release Tuesday, USU said it didn’t start the investigation until then because “Agner was then on job-protected leave.” It’s unclear, though, how that would’ve stopped the university from digging into the allegations. Instead, it left Agner and the three administrators above him — one of which he lived with — to keep paying him for an additional year.

The school added in its statement that it encourages employees to report alleged misconduct that they might witness to USU’s EthicsPoint website (which can be done anonymously). Utah State also said it will better advertise that with a “communications campaign” to make sure all employees are aware of it.

The school hasn’t commented, though, on the reports that several employees submitted early on and if it will correct how quickly it addresses those.

“When issues of noncompliance arise, our system depends on employees reporting issues of concern so they can be properly investigated and addressed,” USU said. “… We want to reassure all employees that they should not be afraid to report anything they think is wrong.”

After the complaint to the AG’s Office, the school then did both an internal audit and HR review, both of which The Tribune received through public records requests.

After those, Agner was fired. His direct boss, Ethan Migliori, remains in his position and currently oversees the same Custom Fit program. Migliori’s boss, Jamie Cano, was stripped of his administrative duties as an associate department head; he is the one who lived with Agner. Cano then quit before the school moved to fire him through a lengthy process for tenured faculty. Bryan Warnick, the department head over technical education, has also remained in his position.

The school said Tuesday: “USU employees, like all state employees, are not ‘at-will,’ and employment decisions must be preceded by a review to determine if there is cause. This can sometimes take time in order for it to be thorough.”

Still, the audit details how Migliori, Cano and Warnick were all friends with Agner and acted inappropriately to keep him on the payroll. And there should’ve been more separation in the reporting chain between Agner and Cano, who never reported their living situation to the school, auditors said. All four have declined to comment to The Tribune.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Migliori, the audit notes, never reported Agner’s absence or logged any sick or vacation time for him; it appears Agner applied for disability leave at one point, but the report doesn’t say what happened with that request and the school has declined to comment on it.

Moving forward with the recommendations to fix the concerns, the school says it intends to have more stringent requirements for Migliori and other managers to account for employee leave.

Additionally, USU’s policy on employee relationships, the review found, hadn’t been updated since 1999. It is now up for review by the Utah State Board of Trustees.

The university also intends to examine how the Custom Fit programs — which exist at several of its campuses — are overseen and how the money is spent. Those funds are allocated each year by the Utah Legislature and the programs are managed by the Utah System of Higher Education.