State auditor dings teen chef education program over ‘dummy’ checks

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) In this Nov. 22, 2016, file photo, Jack Jones, left, culinary arts instructor at the Weber Basin Job Core in Ogden, helps Alondra Medina, Alejandro Pereez, Alan Hurtado and Seth Carroll who are students in the Utah Restaurant Association's ProStart Culinary training program, as they prepare Thanksgiving dinner for more than 1,000 families. For the past several years, the Restaurant Association has collaborated with the Salvation Army and Chartwell's Dining Services to provide the holiday meal. The Union Building Kitchen on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City.

A program that teaches high school students about working in a restaurant has been flagged by the state auditor after submitting dummy checks to the Utah Board of Education for reimbursements.

In a letter to the state superintendent, Utah State Auditor John Dougall wrote that falsified and incomplete receipts submitted by the Utah Restaurant Association — which runs the ProStart program under a contract with the state school board — were “deeply concerning” and pose a risk that public funds could be misused.

“The Utah Restaurant Association’s practice of using ‘dummy’ checks was completely inappropriate and, quite frankly, a very bizarre financial practice,” Dougall said in a prepared statement. "It creates a heightened risk of fraud. Expense reimbursements should always be supported with actual receipts and other appropriate supporting documentation.”

A spokesperson for the Utah Restaurant Association declined to comment.

Scott Jones, deputy superintendent of operations, said the board of education became concerned about the ProStart reimbursements and requested that the auditor’s office provide a third-party review.

“We’re doing our level best to ensure the safety and protection of taxpayer dollars,” Jones said.

This is not the first time the ProStart program has been harshly criticized by auditors. In 2018, state legislative auditors found gaps in the Restaurant Association’s reporting and questioned mounting public expenditures on the program in the face of declining enrollment.

A deeper look at the program by the Utah Investigative Journalism Project, in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune, revealed that the association had sought reimbursement for Disneyland resort tickets, beer tabs and a $100-plus per plate prime rib dinner. It also looked at more than $1 million in state expenditures for production of a teen chef reality TV show directed by the daughter of Utah Restaurant Association president Melva Sine.

ProStart receives more than $400,000 from the state’s Education Fund to support the program, which is affiliated with a reality television series called Teen Chef Masters, produced by the Utah Restaurant Association.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has questioned the use of taxpayers dollars to support the cooking program, and in 2016 used a line-item veto to strip ProStart of its state funding. Lawmakers later pressed Herbert into calling a special legislative session to restore the appropriations.

The Restaurant Association’s lobbyist at the time and currently is Andrew Stephenson, son of then-Sen. Howard Stephenson, one of the program’s most vocal proponents.

In his newly released letter, Dougall, the state auditor, highlighted a group of teachers who were sent to Flagstaff, Ariz., by the Utah Restaurant Association for a training event in 2019. The association requested reimbursements from the school board by submitting copies of checks payable to the teachers for mileage and meals expenses, but the teachers had already been expensed for meals through different checks and had flown, not driven, to the training event.

“We confirmed that the airfare cost almost $600 per ticket by reviewing copies of the booking confirmations and performing internet searches for current pricing,” Dougall wrote. “It is possible URA purchased the airfare using a credit card or some other method; however, they have not provided any documentation of the payment.”

The use of dummy checks was intended to serve in place of a formal invoice to the state, and the requested reimbursements did not exceed the actual costs of the training event, according to Dougall, but the approach was irregular and did not accurately represent the nature of the expenses.

“We find this explanation lacking since a copy of an original check is not required by the contract nor does it provide particularly convincing support for an expenditure,” Dougall wrote. “Adequate supporting documentation would include actual receipts, invoices, and/or cancelled check copies.”

The auditor’s office examined 113 check copies submitted by the Utah Restaurant Association, finding 51 of them to be dummies. Many of the checks were accompanied by “reasonable supporting documentation,” the letter states, while others were deemed risky and in need of further investigation to determine whether they represent legitimate ProStart transactions.

The auditor also wrote that the Utah Board of Education had performed a “reasonable” review of documentation, often requesting additional information and rejecting items that did not meet contract requirements. But the school board could improve its practices by not accepting dummy checks, requiring more detailed payroll records and performing a more thorough review of duplicate receipts.

Jones said there is no evidence to suggest taxpayers dollars were inappropriately used by the Utah Restaurant Association, but that more care can be taken to account for the use of those funds.

“We can do better,” he said, “and we’ll do that by way of the contract.”