The following story was written and reported by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune.
Seven months after it was called out in a critical legislative audit for questionable spending of public dollars, the Utah Restaurant Association is back asking state lawmakers for more than $400,000 in appropriations.
The money is to run ProStart, a culinary education program for high school students looking for careers in the food-service industry. While the audit was fairly damning, its presentation to legislative leaders was limited to just two minutes and was overshadowed by separate discussions about the troubled UPSTART program and its problems delivering technology and services to needy prekindergarten students.
Not disclosed in the presentation was how the restaurant association has in the past tried to get taxpayer funds to reimburse it for Disneyland resort tickets, or how it used public funds to pick up beer tabs, or cover a prime rib dinner costing more than $1,000 for a party of nine. Also left out of the discussion was how the association was reimbursed to buy expensive camera equipment for the production of a teen chef reality program directed by Katy Sine, daughter of Melva Sine, president of the restaurant association, or the conflict presented by the daughter’s company going on to receive more than $1 million in legislative appropriations for production of the show.
Receipts obtained by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project through an open-records request to the Utah State Board of Education show a program that had for years operated on its own terms and repeatedly clashed with the board over inadequate documentation of expenses and spending.
Neither Melva Sine nor her daughter responded to repeated calls for comment, nor to answer written questions.
The ProStart program itself is not unique to Utah but rather is a certificate-based culinary arts program administered by the National Restaurant Association, which runs the program in every state. Through it, students get hands-on skills training to prepare them to become top chefs and restaurateurs — and the opportunity to compete in state and national cooking competitions.
But as auditors discovered last year, the program in Utah puts on more costly training events and regional competitions than neighboring states. It is also unusual in its dependence on public dollars compared to Arizona, Montana, Nevada and New Mexico — states that fund their programs through grants and industry donations.
Another distinction: ProStart is not required curriculum in Utah schools, and it is not the only culinary program available; students also can receive culinary training through the state’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) program.
While CTE, like ProStart, receives money from the state education budget’s per-pupil funding formula and federal grant funding, CTE does not get any special legislative appropriations. That may be because the restaurant association is better at making inroads in the Legislature. Its lobbyist is Andy Stephenson, the son of just-retired state Sen. Howard Stephenson, a longtime powerful figure on the Public Education Appropriations Committee. In May 2011, the first ProStart awards banquet program singled out the senator for special thanks.
Howard Stephenson, who ended his 26-year run in the Legislature last month, is still a staunch advocate of the program. He said that ProStart students get a national certificate and training that is more rigorous than the standard CTE program. And he said the program is a boon to local restaurants and the hospitality and tourism industry.
“That’s why the ProStart program has been so important to these restaurant owners is that they’re looking for that quality and that high level of certification, so they don’t have to train them on the job,” Stephenson said. “The CTE level program is not equivalent in any way, and I think we ought to be looking for the best for our kids.”
Stephenson also said that his son’s work as a lobbyist for the restaurant association in recent years has had no bearing on his support for the program, and he said he has even opposed other clients and issues his son has represented on Capitol Hill.
Stephenson, longtime president of the business-backed Utah Taxpayers Association, also defended another practice the restaurant association has employed since it started receiving ProStart appropriations. ProStart students prepared and served sumptuous meals — paid for with public money — to the Public Education Appropriations Committee. The tradition, however, ended this year as Stephenson retired, but, in January 2016, for example, the committee feasted on a luncheon of potato fingerlings and salmon filets with fresh dill herb and demi-glace. The $742 cost for the legislative meal was reimbursed with tax dollars.
The show must go on
In March 2013, the restaurant association tried to expense more than $1,000 for film equipment for Reel People Productions, the company belonging to Katy Sine, daughter of the association president, and also for her company to film the ProStart state competition that year at the state Capitol.
This invoice was immediately flagged by a purchasing agent with the state education office, who wrote in an email to the association: "The equipment appears to have been purchased for the use of [Melva Sine’s] daughter who then invoices for her time. The purchase of the camera equipment furthers the business capabilities of her daughter’s business with public funds.” The agent also said that public bids should have been taken and that the filming actually could have been provided for free by staff of the education office.
The reimbursement for camera equipment was denied. But two years later, the education office did pay the restaurant association $1,627 for “ProStart Training Equipment” that appears to have helped cover the cost of GoPros, SD memory cards and other cameras used for Reel People Productions’ reality show “TeenChef Pro.”
Asked about the change, education board spokesman Mark Peterson replied, “USBE does not tell URA [whom] to hire and pay.”
By 2015 and 2016, the show was receiving more than $250,000 in annual appropriations.
Howard Stephenson said he’s heard the complaint before but defended “TeenChef Pro” for its educational value, having talked to ProStart teachers who have their students watch the shows as instructional videos. Besides, he said, Katy Sine’s company was able to deliver a quality production very inexpensively.
“They should be congratulated for doing it on such a shoestring,” Stephenson said.
Gov. Gary Herbert saw it differently when, in 2016, he vetoed the $275,000 appropriation for the show.
“The governor is supportive of the ProStart Culinary program, but prefers that taxpayer funds be used exclusively for the program’s educational endeavors,” his spokesman later told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Ultimately, it’s a matter of priorities, and Governor Herbert believes that future funding for this type of programming should come from private sources.”
Katy Sine said much of the program costs are covered by donations and volunteered time. Most of the money appropriated by the state goes to rent studio facilities at Salt Lake Community College and to pay professional staff.
“If we had to pay for the show outright, it would be a $1 million production,” she told The Tribune in July 2016. “We are just operating on a shoestring.”
But last July, auditors renewed questions about “TeenChef Pro," recommending a review of the economic impact of the show given its high cost and noted that its top prize is a scholarship to an out-of-state cooking program in Denver.
(Sine told The Tribune in her 2016 interview that the $80,000 tuition for the scholarship at prestigious Johnson & Wales University was donated.)
After years of being overseen by the Utah State Board of Education as part of the ProStart program, the restaurant association’s contract for production of “TeenChef Pro” last year was transferred to the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
GOED said it has not received an official request to review the show’s economic impact, according to spokeswoman Aimee Edwards. She also said that the family ties between the association head and the show’s producer were never voluntarily disclosed to the agency.
Enrollment down, spending up
Last year’s legislative audit noted a strange trend in the ProStart program. Since 2011, student enrollment has decreased by more than a third while legislative funding has increased 48 percent — including a spike in administrative costs. The restaurant association has disputed the enrollment figures auditors gathered from the Utah State Board of Education, instead offering statistics from a “separate data source” that auditors could not validate.
By crunching state enrollment figures, auditors determined that the per-student cost for the program increased by 133 percent while student enrollment decreased by 37 percent. It’s a troubling trend for a program competing for scarce public education dollars. Even more troubling is the fact that the program has been repeatedly flagged for poor invoicing and suspicious expenses since the program first received legislative funding in 2011.
In 2012, a receipt submitted for reimbursement raised eyebrows. It was from the Black Bear Diner in St. George that, along with a ribeye steak and fries, included two beers. On another trip that year to a different steakhouse, a Coors Light showed up a submitted receipt. Despite being flagged, the expenses were nevertheless reimbursed by the board of education. Peterson said that policy has since changed so as not reimburse alcohol purchases.
Receipts were often challenged for inadequate explanation in the first years of the program but were subjected to closer scrutiny after 2015, when the restaurant association took a group of students to the national ProStart competition in Anaheim, Calif. That same trip they turned in receipts for Disneyland resort passes totaling $2,325, and also spent $1,039.59 on a single dinner at the chic Lawry’s The Prime Rib restaurant in Beverly Hills.
After 2015, it does appear expenses were reined in, and the association began to abide by state per diem allowances. Peterson said the state board also committed more oversight to ProStart expenses following the recommendation of the auditor’s report from last summer.
“Invoices are now reviewed by multiple staff and are checked specifically for these things,” Peterson said. But they didn’t heed the auditor’s recommendation — in light of declining enrollment and rising costs — that the contract between the restaurant association and the board of education "should have a budgeted amount for reimbursement of administrative personnel to ensure administrative costs are reasonable.”
The association “sets the administrative costs each year based on what their costs will be,” Peterson said. “We don’t tell them what their administrative costs should be.”
Melva Sine has since 2011 been reimbursed between $2,000 and $3,000 a month, and she and other ProStart administrators also had their cellphone bills paid and travel covered to ProStart competitions across the country.
The Utah Restaurant Association wears a couple of different chef hats in the state Capitol.
One is advocating for the state’s restaurants, letting legislators know how Zion curtains and 0.05 DUI limits and other laws will impact the big and small businesses of their members.
The other hat involves going to the Legislature, hand out, asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars in appropriations every year to run ProStart — this year seeking $403,100. This puts the industry association in the strange position of actually being more dependent on the Legislature for funding than on its members. The association’s nonprofit tax forms show that for fiscal 2017, the most recent available, the restaurant association received $108,000 in membership dues and $380,000 from government sources.
Tanner Lenart is a lawyer in Salt Lake City with a specialty in dealing with Utah’s quirky liquor laws. She’s also a board member with the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association and said it is unusual that the Utah Restaurant Association gets such a large legislative appropriation, but adds that it’s impossible to say if that has compromised the group’s ability to fight for the industry.
“At the same time the older establishments [like the URA] haven’t accomplished what we’ve wanted to see,” Lenart said. “That’s why there are some new organizations like the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association, the Utah Brewers Guild and the Utah Hospitality Association. There’s just a bunch more specialized interest groups because they felt the URA wasn’t representing them well.”
To be fair, Lenart said she can’t speak for all the various new hospitality groups that have sprung up but still said their presence does send a message.
“I wouldn’t want to speak on behalf of everybody,” Lenart said. “But I do know that the funding has remained the same for the URA, but all these new groups are cropping up in order to try and have more of a voice on the hill.”
For ProStart advocates like Stephenson, the restaurant association remains a trusted, welcome voice in the Capitol, and he is untroubled by ProStart’s practices — from the reality TV show to the elaborate, publicly funded meals the students provided to lawmakers.
For Stephenson, it’s not about “another” free meal for lawmakers but about being able to hold students accountable for the program funding by getting to sample their cooking.
“We don’t just throw money at things," Stephenson said. “We require accountability.”
Eric S. Peterson is the founding board member of The Utah Investigative Journalism Project.