BY J. ANDREW CURLISS
March 11, 2014
State taxpayers picked up the bill for about $140,000 in long-distance phone calls from Elizabeth City State University to a West African nation, money that should have come from federal funds aimed at creating textbooks for students in Senegal.
The calls were made over a 43-month period through April 2013, according to a university report released this week.
The university has for years had “inadequate” and “ineffective” oversight of long-distance calling, according to the school’s interim internal auditor, Irma Jackson. She wrote in a report released late Monday that the university’s review was unable to substantiate the nature of about 5,500 calls made to Senegal, but she wrote that she found “no evidence” of abuse.
Many calls appeared to relate to the textbook program, she wrote in the report. Her review was prompted by stories in The News & Observer last year.
Documents also show that a separate review, which was an offshoot of the internal inquiry, uncovered at least $6,000 in personal international phone calls made by an unidentified employee to family members and “other associates,” calls labeled by the university as misuse of state property. The document says that matter is being referred to legal officials “for further consideration and processing.” Those calls were not to Senegal.
ECSU’s interim chancellor, Charles Becton, said in an interview the matter is under continuing review. He declined to elaborate and said he could not recall the name of the employee who made the personal calls.
State auditors based in Raleigh also have been looking at the phone records, according to documents. University officials say they are expecting that audit’s release this week. A spokesman for State Auditor Beth Wood said her office would not confirm or deny any state-led audit.
$12 per minute
ECSU officials had declined for months to provide details about their internal review, which began after The N&O reported in September on the large volume and unusual pattern of calls from the university to Senegal.
A follow-up report in October detailed that about half the phone calls from ECSU to Senegal lasted only 1 or 2 minutes. In all, nearly 500 numbers in Senegal were called.
Some calls were billed at a rate of more than $12 per minute.
ECSU’s internal review was released late Monday, though it is dated Nov. 20. Becton said the report was finalized only recently.
The review says that ECSU does not have a policy covering telephone use, and it recommended that officials adopt one.
It also said the university had no ongoing oversight of long-distance calls and that current procedures “do not provide adequate assurances that possible abuses are not taking place.” The report recommended a series of reforms aimed at tracking calls and providing accountability. Becton said the recommendations would be followed.
The report said only $2,200 of more than $142,000 in calls to Senegal were correctly billed to the textbook grant program, known as a TLMP grant.
“State funds were used to pay for international phone charges to Senegal that should have been charged to the TLMP grant,” the report says.
The grant program began in September 2009 and ended in March of last year after it spent about $8 million on the textbook effort, which produced more than 2.6 million texts for schoolchildren across Senegal. The grant money was also used to train teachers and to produce other materials, such as flash cards.
The report says charges for long-distance calls at the university have been based on the number of extensions per department and did not correlate to “actual costs incurred.” The report recommends to Becton that the university change that to ensure each department pays for its actual calls. Becton said that would happen.