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Lawmakers Eye "Systemic Problem" On University Spending

Rep. Randy Fine, chairman of the House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee. (Image courtesy of News Service Florida.)
Rep. Randy Fine, chairman of the House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee. (Image courtesy of News Service Florida.)

As financial scandals cloud three state universities, two powerful House Republicans say legislative action, geared toward fixing structural and cultural problems in the university system, will likely be in play this year.

Details on proposals remain scarce as the annual legislative session prepares to start Tuesday. But Randy Fine, chairman of the House’ Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said he wants to look into giving the Legislature more sway over the higher education budget and training for university officials who oversee school finances.

“We are now up to 25 percent of our state universities having some level of issue with the improper use of state dollars,” Fine told The News Service of Florida, referring to three of the 12 schools in the system. “The severity of this issue merits that we do something about it.”

The issue involves investigations into the improper use of state funds at the University of Central Florida, the University of South Florida and the University of Florida.

Of those schools, the University of Central Florida and the University of South Florida have admitted state dollars were misspent for construction projects. And an internal investigation at the University of Florida has been launched about potential misuse of public funds, after a whistleblower’s complaint was sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office and the Florida Department of Education, the Gainesville Sun first reported.

In addition to the universities conducting internal audits on the misuse of funds, the Florida House’s top investigative committee, chaired by state Rep. Tom Leek, has summoned 14 current and former UCF officials as part of a probe into the improper use of $38 million in operating funds for construction of Trevor Colbourn Hall on the main Orlando campus.

Leek, an Ormond Beach Republican who chairs the House Public Integrity & Ethics Committee, said it is a “significant concern” to see a number of public universities involved in misuse of funds, but added that at this moment his committee is formally scrutinizing the UCF spending.

“It’s starting to look more and more like a systematic problem, and if it is, that will be a significant concern for the House to look into,” Leek told The News Service of Florida.

Leek added the UF internal investigation will be monitored, but his committee has not launched a formal investigation into the Gainesville-based university. He said he first wants to see the findings of the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees UF and 11 other state universities, and the UF internal audit.

Steve Orlando, a UF spokesman, said in a statement the university is “swiftly and aggressively” addressing allegations of business practices that “do not support university and/or state laws, regulations and policies.”

“The University of Florida takes very seriously its role as a steward of public funds and a recipient of the public’s trust,” Orlando added.

The improper use of state funds tied to state universities is already brewing a legislative fight that could threaten the state higher-education budget and spending rules.

“What’s important is to find a way for it to stop. I think there is a few vehicles to do that, not settled on a solution yet, but I think you’ll see some policy recommendations coming out of my world,” Fine said.

One thing Fine is eyeing is training for university officials, and he pointed to a “structural problem” enabling misuse of money.

“We have laws that are being broken. I’m not focused on sanctions, I am focusing on new decision models that can prevent things like these happening in the future,” Fine said. “Clearly, we have got a reasonable amount of people making a good deal of money who are not understanding the duties of their job.”

At UCF, current and former university officials have testified to the House Public Integrity & Ethics Committee that they did not have a full understanding of the implications of their decisions to use leftover general and education funds for building projects.

“We were fired for not understanding these rules, and it implies that we did it intentionally, which is false,” said Tracy Clark, one of four UCF senior employees terminated in the wake of the financial scandal. “It implies we concealed, which I think you can see there was no concealing coming out of finance and accounting.

Current and former UCF employees have also testified that former UCF President Dale Whittaker, who recently resigned while citing a need to fix the university’s strained relationship with the Legislature, was made aware of projects that were funded with leftover operating money.

“I knew that Dale knew the use of [operational] funds might produce an audit comment and that, in my opinion, that would have told Dale that there was something to question,” Clark said.

Last November, when USF admitted to misusing $6.4 million in state dollars for a construction project, the reason was said to have been a “misunderstanding” of how funds could be used for capital projects, David E. Lechner, the university’s senior vice president for business and financial strategy, wrote in a November letter to university system Chancellor Marshall Criser III.

The News Service of Florida is a wire service to which WUFT News subscribes.