For today’s paper, I reported on an internal audit performed by the University of the District of Columbia on President Allen L. Sessoms’ business and travel expenses, which have come under scrutiny since a February WTTG-TV report.
The confidential audit report heartily criticizes all parties — Sessoms, his employees and the university’s Board of Trustees — for lousy recordkeeping, spotty oversight and lax accountability. Among other things, it found that Sessoms and the board did not adhere to a provision in his contract that he develop a twice-yearly travel budget, and that Sessoms commingled business and personal expenses charged to the university.
I did not have a chance to speak to board chairman Joseph L. Askew Jr. before the article ran. We were able to speak today.
Askew challenged my characterization that the board had performed “scant oversight” of Sessoms’ spending as “unfair and untrue.” He emphasized that the board has taken several steps to handle the issues related to Sessoms’s expenses — including the suspension of Sessoms’ university American Express card, as well as other UDC purchase cards. He also noted that the board ordered the audit even before the WTTG-TV report first aired and that a broader review of travel approval practices is underway.
The audit, as I reported, found that Askew had asked a Sessoms aide to develop the required travel budget back in January 2010, but he was rebuffed. In the past year or so, Askew said, Sessoms has not sought board approval of his travel, also required by his contract.
Boards led by Askew’s predecessors, the audit found, also did not follow the requirements of Sessoms’ contract and city regulations. Neither James Dyke Jr. nor Emily Durso developed the requisite budgets, and they pre-approved travel expenses that included first-class or business-class travel.
Dyke, who led the board that hired Sessoms in 2008, told me Wednesday that it made little sense to develop a travel budget for a new president when it was unclear what sort of traveling he might need to do. “The thought was, we would let him get his feet on the ground,” he said. Regarding the first-class tickets that he had approved, Dyke said, “Everything I saw, certainly, was reasonable.”
Durso, who succeeded Dyke as board chair in May 2009, declined comment except to say she was “glad they did [the audit] and ever happier that strong guidelines for all travel are being developed.”
Askew also noted that the board, which should contain 15 members, has been operating with only seven members for more than a year. (Mayor Vincent C. Gray nominated eight members to the UDC board Wednesday; they must be confirmed by the D.C. Council.) As he rightly points out, the board has had to deal with weightier issues in administering the university’s $148 million budget than Sessoms’ travel, which amounts to $59,000 over three years.
”The board has been very active,” he said. “It’s been a whole lot for us to manage.”