Education

Report: State can't recoup $140K in pricey overseas calls

Posted March 13

— 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.

24 Comments

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  • wafranklin Mar 14, 11:44 a.m.

    Hey, remember our auditor - Les is More - Wood could not find her way home. You need to close ECSU because it is black - and it does a great job. But, it is black, not allowed.

  • mistervegas Mar 13, 3:54 p.m.

    Sounds like a scam to me.

  • Brigand Mar 13, 3:17 p.m.

    This is a University that should be consolidated.

    — Posted by Brigand

    There is nothing that suggests that this is a suitable or a desired outcome. Why should ECSU be... View More

    — Posted by issymayake

    Because for the cost of the University and the small size, it is not producing nor serving enough to make it viable.

  • DontVote4LiarsCheatsOrThieves Mar 13, 3:07 p.m.

    Well, I know this is a stupid question, but are there no students in the US this school and these grants could be helping - that we have to go to Senegal to help them there???

  • DoingMyBest Mar 13, 2:59 p.m.

    "So you are saying don't do audits and lose another $150,000 over the next 3 years?"

    I woudn't say that. I am glad they are finding the waste we all have know that takes place in govt/public jobs.....but who is auditing the auditors to insure they are wasting money. That is just as big of a question. Kinda like "Who is watching the hen house"

  • seankelly15 Mar 13, 2:59 p.m.

    99PERCENTERS - "....... am I right?"

    Nope.

  • seankelly15 Mar 13, 2:57 p.m.

    WHEELMAN - "What in heavens name are they needing to talk to anyone in Senegal that much for? Sounds like something for some ridiculous degree that no one will find a job for or a person with relatives or some personal business interest. Who made the calls and who were they made to?"

    Read the story. Not one thing that you mentioned is in the story.

  • davidhartman Mar 13, 2:56 p.m.

    Lovely government/academia lack of responsibility and accountability. Of course, no one was found culpable.

    The waste of tax-payer monies is simply inexcusable.

  • issymayake Mar 13, 2:44 p.m.

    This is a University that should be consolidated.

    — Posted by Brigand

    There is nothing that suggests that this is a suitable or a desired outcome. Why should ECSU be consolidated?

  • dollibug Mar 13, 2:31 p.m.

    So much *WASTE in government run agencies*....someone should have caught this before it got out of hand.

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