Report: State can't recoup $140K in pricey overseas calls
Posted March 13, 2014
Raleigh, N.C. — A state auditor's report released Thursday revealed the state will be unable to reclaim more than $100,000 for international phone calls improperly charged to the state by Elizabeth City State University.
State Auditor Beth Wood wrote that about $142,000 in calls made to the west African country of Senegal over three-and-a-half years "appeared reasonable" but should have been charged to a federal grant program.
Like a similar internal audit from the university released this week, the report did not identify abuse or wrongdoing. Both audits stopped short of determining exactly why employees at the university racked up such high charges for the calls, which campus officials say were related to a textbook project.
In 2009, ECSU won an $8 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development for the program, which would help Senegalese educators create and produce 3 million textbooks for schoolchildren.
But the state auditor's report shows only about $2,000 worth of the calls were funded by the federal program, while state funds and "other unrelated program funds" paid the remainder of the bill.
The high-cost calls to Senegal were first reported by The News & Observer in September.
Costly calls an anomaly
According to data from the state Division of Information Technology Services, ECSU employees racked up $142,579 in charges for about 5,500 calls to Senegal from Sept. 3, 2009, to April 9, 2013.
By comparison, the university's audit showed ECSU's normal spending on long-distance and international calls totaled $69,000 in 2011 and $85,000 in 2012.
Employees called 482 different numbers at an average cost of about $26 a call, or $5.96 a minute.
But the prices ranged widely, from $1.26 a minute to as high as $14.12 a minute for a three-minute phone call. The largest bill was for a 55-minute phone call on May 18, 2012, that cost $411.70.
The high frequency of calls mean employees were calling the country an average of six times per work day.
The vast majority of calls – about 3,800 – were made to cellphone numbers, according to the prefixes reported in the ITS data. The remaining 1,600 were made to land lines.
Mobile phone service in Senegal is often spotty, leading to frequent dropped calls.
The university's audit, dated Nov. 30 but released by campus officials this week, said bad connections were likely one of the reasons that nearly 60 percent of the calls were only one to two minutes long.
Audits show lack of oversight
The state audit report criticized the university for accounting practices associated with the calls, the costs of which were split among multiple departments.
Because the university lacked detailed reporting on these calls, the audit said, they weren't aware of the spike in costs and couldn't adjust the source of the funds.
ECSU officials said in their response to the audit that they had reached out to the grant agency, USAID, to recoup about $100,000 of unused funds, but that request was denied.
State auditors noted that ECSU's administration wasn't able to fully answer questions about how the calls were related to the textbook program. Several of the program directors were no longer employed by the university or were out of the country.
Emails from WRAL News to Program Director Johnny Houston, Associate Program Director Abdou Sene and Program Coordinator Cherif Seck were not returned.
A former program coordinator, however, did tell investigators that all of the calls were related to the program. But the numbers he identified, the audit said, made up only about 8 percent of the calls.
Wood's office told the university it needs more oversight over international calls, including an explicit policy and more cost-effective alternatives.
The university's audit drew similar conclusions, noting that ECSU's control over long-distance calls were inadequate, ineffective and lacking appropriate safeguards.
"We were unable to substantiate the nature of all calls to Senegal," university auditor Irma Jackson wrote. "However, in reviewing the information obtained, we found no evidence of abuse."
Another internal audit the university conducted uncovered about $6,000 in calls by an unidentified ECSU employee, whom the audit said misused state property to contact "family members and other associates."
In its response to the state auditor, university officials said they're reviewing long-distance call practices and working to identify unusual activity.
At a media roundtable in December, interim Chancellor Charles Becton refused to elaborate on the university's ongoing internal investigation into the phone calls, which come in the midst of a $5 million budget shortfall.
In early January, the University of North Carolina system Board of Governors approved a recommendation from the university to eliminate four degree programs – studio art, physics, geology and marine environmental science – in an effort to cut costs. Becton also laid off 46 employees, eliminated 41 vacant positions and ended dozens of temporary contracts.