Saunders: If you like piña coladas ... get yourself a grant

bsaunders@newsobserver.comDecember 10, 2012 

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Memo to John Drescher: I hereby propose that y’all send me to investigate the relative alcohol content of piña coladas at various resorts in Cancun vis-à-vis their counterparts in Myrtle Beach. Concurrently, I propose to study how long one must stay submerged in each resort’s Jacuzzi before your skin starts to wrinkle.

Hey, it worked for Stacy Nelson, the N.C. State University associate professor who took his family on trips to the beach on the university’s dime, ostensibly to study submerged aquatic vegetation.

Yup. That’s “plants growing underwater.”

Upon further review, it didn’t work for Nelson, who works in the university’s Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources. After all, had the ruse worked, we wouldn’t be writing and reading about the state audit that determined that Nelson’s so-called work trip to the beach in July and August 2011 was likely an excuse for a grant-funded vacation at expensive Outer Banks resorts.

Also, had it worked, he wouldn’t be fixing to fish in his pockets for $3,359 to reimburse the school.

Auditor Beth Wood’s spokesman, Dennis Patterson, told me he couldn’t determine the specific days Nelson took his questionable trips, but even so, we know one thing: It was hot. And on the weekend.

July 2011 was the hottest on record in the state, according to the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, with an average daily temperature of 93 degrees. If that doesn’t make you feel like throwing the kids into the Woody and taking a jaunt to the beach to study some submerged aquatic vegetation that summer, what would?

High-class hotels

As reported in a story last week, the Family Nelson eschewed the low-class motels in favor of The Sanderling Resort and Spa in Duck – nearly $600 a night for three nights – and others that were close to $400 a night. According to our story, Nelson told auditors he chose the hotels because of their proximity to the work site.

Oh, you mean the beach.

The high cost may have proved to be his Waterloo since the price of a suite at the Wing Wang Motel or its nominally more upscale sister resort, the Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Motor Lodge – where they don’t leave a chocolate on your pillow, but a half-eaten Zagnut bar – wouldn’t have set off alarm bells.

To his credit, Nelson admitted to auditors that he didn’t take notes of his findings, which is a violation of university policy. Me? I’d have exclaimed, “Jaws et my notes. Snatched ’em right outta my hands!”

Oh, so I’m the only one, huh?

Immeasurable savings

Nelson has now been duly chastened. So has, I’m guessing, every other professor who was thinking about using some grant money to take Sweet Thang to the Angus Barn to study the gustatory effects of sustained flames on the side of Grade A Sirloin and its subsequent impact when mixed with mashed taters inside one’s belly.

Such deterrent value is lost on critics who see only that a $35,000 audit netted less than $4,000 in misspent grant money. When you think, however, of the professors and researchers who won’t be taking questionable trips – lest they end up enduring the same level of scrutiny as their colleague – then the savings are immeasurable.

So, instead of reviling Nelson and suggesting that he turn in his state-issued pocket protector, we should be hoisting a piña colada to him for helping to save the university money.

That’s exactly what I plan to do when I get to Cancun.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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