Phone calls from ECSU to Senegal topped $100,000

acurliss@newsobserver.com draynor@newsobserver.comSeptember 21, 2013 

  • Three hours, 10 minutes: $1,004 in calls to Senegal

    Records show calls from Elizabeth City State University to Senegal cost about $105,000 over a recent 27-month span. Within that, there were more than 40 days with costs of $500 or more on calls to the West African nation. An example is Feb. 25 this year, when 13 calls were made to 11 numbers over a span of about three hours. They cost about $1,000. All calls were billed as originating from the main ECSU line, 252-335-3400.

    Time Minutes Cost
    9:56 a.m. 14 $156.47
    10:10 a.m. 1 $7.06
    10:14 a.m. 5 $48.24
    10:20 a.m. 1 $3.54
    10:21 a.m. 12 $133.16
    10:37 a.m. 10 $116.47
    10:50 a.m. 1 $8.24
    10:51 a.m. 33 $378.82
    11:46 a.m. 1 $3.54
    11:47 a.m. 3 $28.24
    12:49 p.m. 2 $15.12
    12:50 p.m. 9 $81.66
    1:06 p.m. 3 $23.85
    TOTAL 95 $1,004.41
    Source: N.C. Office of Information Technology Services

The phone line at Elizabeth City State University has been lit up between the university and the West African nation of Senegal, with billings totaling about $105,000 in a recent 27-month span, state records show.

Thousands of calls to Senegal from the campus 170 miles northeast of Raleigh are listed in records as originating from the university’s main phone line. State officials have not provided further details about precisely which campus phone or phones the calls were made from.

Elizabeth City State officials say they are reviewing the calls after inquiries from The News & Observer but will share no other information, including who at the university is leading the review.

A university spokeswoman, Kesha Williams, said in an interview and wrote in an email that administrators would not comment further while the inquiry is ongoing. “Chancellor Charles Becton has asked a campus team to investigate this serious matter,” Williams wrote. “At this time, given the enormity of the task, we cannot give you a time frame for completion.”

Becton is the interim chancellor following the departure of former Chancellor Willie Gilchrist and the campus police chief this year amid investigations into improper reporting of campus crimes. UNC system officials recently warned that ECSU faces a budget shortfall that will likely lead to layoffs at the campus this year. About 2,400 students are enrolled.

Documents and interviews at ECSU point to the phone calls as being part of a program that helped write and provided a series of textbooks for schools in Senegal from 2009 to 2012. The textbook program was funded largely by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the federal foreign aid agency, with a series of grants that totaled $8 million.

Still, a review of the ECSU phone bills for calls from January 2011 through March this year raises questions. The records show:

•  A total of 351 different phone numbers in Senegal were called from ECSU.

•  More than 3,570 calls were made, an average of more than six per business day.

•  More than 2,000 of the calls lasted only 1 minute or 2 minutes.

•  Costs varied widely even on calls made within minutes of each other to the same number.

Expensive rates

The calls to Senegal are among the most expensive, on a per-minute rate, in state government, according to a comparison of ECSU bills with more than 20 other state agencies. And no other state agency, including UNC-Chapel Hill, the state Agriculture Department or the state Department of Commerce, incurred the expense of international calls that ECSU had in that time frame, according to bills reviewed by The N&O.

The average cost of each call from ECSU to Senegal was about $29. One 24-minute call in Nov. 2012 cost taxpayers $323.27. This year, a 33-minute call cost $378.82. The per-minute rate ranged from $1.66 a minute to more than $14 a minute for one call made in March this year. Almost all were made during regular business hours.

Records show more than 40 different days of calls to Senegal in which the daily bill for those calls topped $500. The calls were billed through a state contract with AT&T that began in 2010 and could last, with extensions, through 2017.

ECSU has paid all the Senegal costs and has not disputed them or claimed fraud, state officials said.

An AT&T spokesman, Josh Gelinas, said the company could not discuss a customer’s bill.

He said an international call goes through multiple steps from phone to phone and the costs are determined, in part, by what foreign phone companies charge to connect the calls. He said rates vary based on location called, type of phone called and time of day.

But he could not explain why the costs had wide variations even on phone calls made within minutes of each other to the same line in Senegal. An example of the disparity in pricing occurred on Jan. 22 this year.

A one-minute call to Senegal at 2:20 p.m. cost the university $2.71. At 2:21 p.m., the university’s phone reconnected with the same number. It was billed at $8.89 a minute – more than three times the rate from the previous call. That call lasted seven minutes. Then, at 2:28 p.m., the same number in Senegal was reached again for a one-minute call that cost $7.22. Those three calls lasted 10 minutes and cost taxpayers $79.35.

The N&O found at least 780 other calls that were part of a similar pattern, with successive calls in close proximity made to the same number but that resulted in charges at rates that were different by at least $1 per minute.

AT&T’s Gelinas referred questions to the state’s information technology service.

A spokesman for that agency, Danny Lineberry, said the state does not set the rates. That is done through AT&T, he said. The bills go from AT&T to the state’s ITS and then on to agencies. “What we send agencies is what AT&T sends us,” he said.

‘A lot of phone calls’

The N&O dialed some of the more frequently called numbers in Senegal, and many led to crackling sounds, a disconnection signal or a reorder tone, often referred to as a “fast busy” signal, that meant the connection just couldn’t go through at that time.

A woman answered at one number, which had been called from ECSU 55 times, but said she did not know anyone in the United States or North Carolina. The connection was spotty and she did not speak English, but she said she had been reached at a residence.

The textbook program’s director, ECSU professor Abdou Maty Sene, could not be reached for an interview.

But in several email messages, Sene wrote that he thought most of the calls were tied to the textbook effort, which he said was “very demanding as far as the communication is concerned” and that it required “a lot of phone calls.”

“I am not sure about the numbers but we do have a lot of people we were working with in trying to get the books right,” Sene wrote. “The process in producing textbooks is very complicated... ECSU was the only university (in the federal grant program) working with a French country and our books were developed in French language, which made our job very difficult.”

The textbook program ended earlier this year after officials said they had successfully printed and then provided about 2.6 million grade- and high-school textbooks on a range of basic subjects to children across Senegal. The texts were developed in a partnership between ECSU officials and Senegalese educators. Nine different texts were produced between June 2011 and December 2012, according to a report on the program, with about 20 titles produced in all over a three-year span. The books were all in French, the language of Senegal, and were printed in Senegal.

Officials at USAID said they could not respond to questions about whether the cost of the phone calls would have been covered by the federal grant funds. A spokesman referred questions to ECSU.

Cherif Seck, a lecturer in the African Studies Program at ECSU who helped manage the textbook program, said in an interview that he was born in Senegal. He said he made numerous phone calls to the nation as part of the textbook program but did not think more than 300 different phone lines were contacted. He said his focus was on ensuring correct French was used in the texts. He said he has a personal card for his personal calls.

Seck said Senegal, which has about 13 million residents, has uneven phone service and it is difficult to reach people there without visiting in person. He said other possible options, such as using email or calling via the Internet, are not viable because computers are not as prevalent there and power outages are common.

“You can call and will not get anyone for time after time on a single day,” he said. “It just rings or doesn’t quite go through. But that will show up on the bill.”

Curliss: 919-829-4840

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