Local News

Audit Criticizes Education Chair's Rental Car

Posted November 27, 2007 11:27 a.m. EST
Updated November 27, 2007 5:40 p.m. EST

— State Board of Education Chairman Howard Lee could have saved the state more than $26,000 by leasing a car for official business rather than renting one in recent years, according to a state audit.

Lee also incorrectly received meal and travel reimbursements from the state Department of Public Instruction after he had been appointed to a seat on the state Utilities Commission, the audit found.

Because his work for the education board required frequent trips across the state, Lee rented a Chrysler 300 from Triangle Rent-a-Car from September 2004 to November 2006 and from Enterprise Rent-a-Car from February to June. The state spent $51,030 for the rentals, along with $6,070 in gas reimbursements to Lee, according to the audit.

Leasing a Chrysler from a local dealership for three years would have cost the state $30,655, including the gas reimbursement, for a $26,455 savings, the audit said.

In DPI's official response to the audit, Education Superintendent June Atkinson said department officials unsuccessfully tried to arrange for Lee to use a state car and chose the month-to-month rental cars because they weren't sure whether Lee could fulfill the three-year obligation of a car lease.

"In hindsight, given the chairman's extensive travels to address the significant reform issues facing our public schools, a lease would have been a more cost-effective option," Atkinson wrote. "At the time DPI was making decisions about the rental car, we could not anticipate events, and the shorter commitment seemed to be the more reasonable course."

Lee said he stopped renting cars for official use on Sept. 20.

The audit also said Lee shouldn't have received $9,523 in travel and meal expenses from DPI after April 2005, when he was appointed to the Utilities Commission. Serving on the Utilities Commission means Lee is considered a state employee and is ineligible for per diem reimbursements, the audit said.

Atkinson responded that DPI auditors combed through records and found that Lee was under-reimbursed for his work on the State Board of Education before joining the Utilities Commission. Lee has repaid the department the $2,343 difference between the under-reimbursements and the improper per diems, she said.