ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - New York's state comptroller cites conflicts of interest, overpayments of contracts that weren't competitively bid and misuse of credit cards that paid for world travel and even hockey tickets and groceries as proof that the State University of New York Research Foundation needs far more oversight.
"For too long, SUNY Research Foundation employees took advantage of lax oversight to cheat taxpayers, skirt state laws and violate the foundation's own policies," Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said in a report released Monday and based on a state audit. "The Research Foundation needs to vastly improve its internal controls, budgetary oversight, and ensure compliance with all relevant laws and policies."
The spending included nearly $28,000 in "questionable" charges to Chancellor Nancy Zimpher's account, including a $9,000 club membership and alcohol at receptions, according to the report.
The spending DiNapoli calls an abuse of taxpayers' money comes as SUNY campuses are digging out of years of budget cuts from Albany that prompted a decision by the Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to increase tuition annually for five years. They call it a "rational tuition plan" that should avoid the occasional spikes in tuition.
The foundation said the audit focuses on "past problems" and cites a list of accountability measures already in place.
"From the beginning of this process, RF and SUNY leadership have viewed the audit as an opportunity to acknowledge past problem areas at the RF, embrace potential improvements, refocus on the RF's mission to serve SUNY, and to reclaim the public's trust," said Timothy Killeen, president of the SUNY Research Foundation.
In addition to raising the standards of accountability of officers and employees and strengthening management oversight, the foundation has committed itself to "the highest standards of integrity and ethical behavior," Killeen said.
Monday's report, however, includes a review of numerous management goals and recommendations from 2005, most of which weren't implemented or were only partly implemented, DiNapoli said.
DiNapoli's report found:
— A recently fired research foundation employee at Buffalo State College used his agency credit card over 48 months ending in November 2011 to charge $130,887 on items and services not related to foundation business. That includes $22,225 for Buffalo Sabres Hockey tickets, his wife's birthday party, a computer, iPad and iPhones, chocolates, and groceries. He also traveled to foreign countries, primarily in Asia 29 times at a cost of $125,342 without providing an agenda or ternary. DiNapoli said much of the spending was approved by superiors.
The former official's response to auditors when questioned why he needed to accompany faculty to Asia, often charging for airline upgrades: "I am the guy. No other way to put it."
— Thirteen contracts were awarded without being competitive bid, which is designed to assure a lower cost. One of the contracts went to a law firm for $913,500 to investigate a scandal in the University at Binghamton basketball program.
— One consultant collected for himself and his company $469,700 from December 2008 to May 2011 despite a possible conflict of interest.
—The former general counsel and secretary received $345,034 for less than a year of service, plus a severance package.
The foundation supports SUNY campuses and research and has often helped fund highly paid researchers to keep them at the state university.
According to a statement from SUNY Research Foundation President Timothy Killeen , the foundation has changed and improved under new leadership. The statement says the Research Foundation has, "Instituted new protocols that raise the standards of accountability of officers and employees alike, and set clear expectations of ethical behavior; Reviewed its policies and procedures relating to procurement, contractual and transactional work across the operation; Strengthened its governance and attracted new members to its Board of Directors, each of whom brings different and diverse skill sets and valuable expertise to the table, and Reinforced its institutional commitment to the highest standards of integrity and ethical behavior."
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