Politics & Government

Top NC State Fair officials improperly spent thousands of dollars, audit finds

The head of the North Carolina State Fair, along with state Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and Troxler’s top aide, spent thousands of taxpayer dollars on unauthorized travel costs, a new audit says.

Troxler is an elected official; the other two officials work for him. The audit released Wednesday found that they improperly got the state to pay more than $22,000 for hotels, meals and more during annual State Fairs dating back to 2014.

Nearly all of the payments deemed improper — more than $10,000 each — were for Troxler and his chief of staff, Zane Hedgecock. Fair manager Kent Yelverton, who took over the job last year, also expensed about $1,000 he shouldn’t have, the audit said.

The audit did not require the three officials to repay the money, although State Auditor Beth Wood suggested that they should do so.

Troxler’s office, however, defended the expenses and gave no indication that he or the others will be asked to repay the money.

“The annual N.C. State Fair is an event that is unparalleled in scope and duration in state government and as a result it requires a great deal of oversight and coordination for its safe and successful operation,” said David Smith, Troxler’s chief deputy commissioner, in a written statement to the News & Observer.

He added that “work days are long and they need to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to address any issues that may occur during the event, including security concerns, logistical issues, special events and other matters.”

The audit says the three officials violated state rules over the course of at least five years by getting the state to pay for their hotels, meals and more during the State Fair, even though their office is less than five miles from the fairgrounds. The state only allows officials to expense meals and trips if they’re traveling more than 35 miles from their office.

After the auditor’s office started asked questions earlier this summer, Troxler’s office formally asked for top officials like him to be exempted from travel rules during the State Fair, which N.C. Budget Director Charlie Perusse approved.

Perusse said the fair presents “unique business needs” and that he is “also concerned about the safety of these employees who would be required to work late at night until the fairs close, drive beyond the 35-mile radius to their home and return early the next morning before the fairs open.”

But Perusse said he was only granting an exemption to the travel rules, and they must still follow all other rules.

And the audit found they broke at least one other rule in years past.

The audit said Troxler and Hedgecock, have been exceeding the amount that state employees are limited to expensing per day. Although state workers are supposed to limit their combined meal and lodging expenses to $109.50 a day when traveling, both men have consistently exceeded that with their hotel rooms alone.

They stayed at the Renaissance hotel in North Hills, part of Marriott’s “premium” brand of hotels, which cost taxpayers $199 a night for each official. Despite already exceeding the daily limit with their hotel rooms, the audit found, the two also expensed more than $600 worth of meals and mileage during the 2018 fair, plus $100 for valet parking, the audit says, and nearly $900 worth of meals and mileage during the 2017 fair.

Troxler also stayed at the Renaissance in 2014 and 2017, the audit said, paying the same price of $199 a night in those years. In 2015 and 2016 he stayed at different hotels that, while slightly cheaper at $143 and $159 per night, still exceeded the maximum rate.

Yelverton, the fair manager, stayed in a $70-per-night Hawthorne Suites hotel near the fairgrounds and did not expense any meals, mileage or other costs. Wood’s office credited Yelverton for finding a cheap option and questioned why Troxler and Hedgecock stayed in the more expensive hotel.

“While Raleigh can be a higher-cost area, the Department obtained safe and secure lodging for the State Fair Manager during the 2018 State Fair for $70 per night,” the audit said. “In comparison, the Department paid $199 per night for both the Commissioner and the Chief of Staff.”

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