State audit: ECSU didn’t account properly for phone calls

acurliss@newsobserver.comMarch 13, 2014 

A state audit released Thursday says that Elizabeth City State University failed to properly account for long-distance calling to Senegal at the cost of about $140,000 to state taxpayers.

State auditors said the university should seek reimbursement to repay the state. ECSU officials said in a response that they had already sought permission to use $100,000 in unspent federal grant funds toward the cost of the calls, but that request was denied.

The audit is similar to an internal university report released this week that found problems in oversight of long-distance calls from ECSU to the West African nation. ECSU was part of a federal grant program from 2009 to 2012 aimed at creating textbooks for developing countries. ECSU’s African Studies department focused on Senegal, creating texts and other materials.

A review of phone records by The News & Observer for a report published in September showed that calls from ECSU’s campus to Senegal had outpaced other agencies across state government in the time frame of the textbook program. The report raised questions about unusual patterns of the calls.

As state auditors began reviewing documents, the N&O found that, in all, about 5,500 calls were made from ECSU to nearly 500 different phone numbers in Senegal.

Many of the calls were for 1 or 2 minutes. The cost of the calls was more than $142,000 in all. The federal grant program paid about $2,000 of that.

The textbook program’s director, ECSU professor Abdou Maty Sene, has said in an email to the N&O 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.”

Cut-off calls

The new state audit provides more explanation.

It says that two of three employees who were part of the program now live out of the U.S. and could not be reached.

A former program coordinator, who was not identified by name in the audit, told auditors that all the calls were related to the textbook program, though he could not identify phone numbers with specificity. Auditors wrote that a “contact list” of Senegal program numbers the ECSU employee provided made up “only 8% of the total calls.”

“When asked about the unidentified numbers as well as the large number and frequency of short duration calls,” auditors wrote, “the former program coordinator said that, when calling internationally, he would often get bad connections, be connected to a wrong number or would be cut off in the middle of a call. He believed that this could explain the large quantity of different numbers as well as the short duration of many of the calls.”

The audit says attempts to independently verify numbers failed due to “language barriers” and limited other information.

The university’s internal review, which administrators released this week, said state taxpayers picked up $140,000 in calls that should have been part of a federal grant that produced the textbooks in Senegal. The review said there was “no evidence” of abuse related to the Senegal calls, but that not every number could be checked.

An offshoot of the review led to separate findings, claiming that an ECSU employee had “misused” taxpayer dollars in ringing up about $6,000 in calls to other international destinations. The calls were to family and associates, the review said.

Officials acknowledged the university has had no policy or oversight of long-distance calls. Interim Chancellor Charles Becton said in an interview that will change.

Curliss: 919-829-4840; Twitter: @acurliss

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