A professor from N.C. State University used grant funds to go on family vacations at top-dollar beach resorts, according to a report by the Office of the State Auditor.
The report accuses Stacy Nelson, an associate professor in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources, of taking two personal trips under the guise of doing research in 2011.
For a couple decades, the department has counted restoration of ecosystems among its responsibilities. In 2009, as a part of that effort, Nelson submitted a grant proposal to the state Department of Transportation to examine whether submerged aquatic vegetation in the Currituck Sound could be monitored using remote sensors.
Nelson allegedly used $3,359 from the grant funds to take his family on trips to the Outer Banks in July and August 2011.
The family stayed in The Sanderling Resort and Spa in Duck that July for $587.69 per night for three nights; that August the family stayed near Kitty Hawk for $367.66 for one night and $390.01 per night for two nights. Another $448.70 was paid for meals and transportation during the trips. Nelson told an investigator the arrangements were made last-minute and chosen for their proximity to the work site.
No documentation of validating data obtained from plant and water samples – the stated purpose of the trip – was provided to investigators. Nelson claims to have not kept records, which is a violation of policy.
Nelson declined to comment on the audit when contacted by phone by The News & Observer. His salary is $82,319, according to state data.
The state auditor recommends that the professor be forced to repay grant funds used for travel and that the university make sure its employees comply with a requirement that research documentation is retained for three years.
The university has responded by emphasizing policies on research documentation retention to professors and has promised to “ensure that the funds used for travel to the Outer Banks in 2011 are fully reimbursed to the grant.”
The audit cost the state $35,136 and took 488 man hours to conduct.
Dennis Patterson, a spokesman for the auditor’s office, said that even though the audit overturned less than it cost that it’s part of the process.
“You never know how much you’re going to find until you go through the process and find it,” Patterson said. “This discourages people from doing something similar.”