Internal audit finds little oversight of UDC president’s travel expenses
By Mike DeBonis,
The University of the District of Columbia exercised scant oversight over its president’s business and travel expenses, an internal audit has found, allowing Allen L. Sessoms to travel widely without developing a budget or seeking approvals required by his employment contract.
Sessoms, who has led the District’s public university since September 2008, has come under fire in recent weeks for traveling on university funds. WTTG (Channel 5) reported in February about several trips that generally involved first-class travel and luxury accommodations.
All told, Sessoms has taken 36 university-paid trips totaling $58,444 since becoming UDC president. One trip, to Egypt, was billed at $7,952. The auditors said that in many cases, the expenses were poorly documented.
University spokesman Alan Etter said that Sessoms, who declined to comment, would take appropriate action once the Board of Trustees completes a review of the audit, which has not been officially released.
“We are implementing systems that will make for more transparent accounting,” Etter said. “We recognize the need to spend our resources in a way that is efficient and that benefits our students.”
Under Sessoms’s contract, he is entitled to reimbursement of “reasonable business and travel expenses . . . pursuant to a budget developed on a semi-annual basis” between him and UDC board members. The expenses are to be reviewed “on at least a quarterly basis” by the board or a designee.
No budgets were developed, the audit said, and reviews of Sessoms’s expenses were spotty.
In January 2010, the board’s chairman, Joseph L. Askew Jr., asked a Sessoms aide to prepare a budget for approval. She refused, auditors said, replying to Askew in an e-mail that “it is impossible to know where he is going in the next 11 months.” She added that she would forward authorization forms to the board “because I am required to do so, and it informs you of the time he will be in or out of the city.”
The aide, the audit concluded, “obstructed the Board from receiving the information that was contractually agreed upon.”
At a D.C. Council hearing last month, Askew acknowledged that it was the board’s responsibility “to approve any travel expenses that it is made aware of.”
“The board certainly has exercised its fiduciary duty when those expenses have been presented to it,” he said. “I do want to emphasize — if the expense does not come to us, we may not know about it.”
The Egypt trip, Askew said, did not get board approval. Sessoms said the trip, to visit a university program in Cairo, was planned on short notice after Egyptian officials insisted on his presence.
At the hearing, Sessoms said that there were “contradictions” and “ambiguities” about the expense approval process. Auditors said the process lacked rigor.
“There is this tangle that nobody can completely understand,” he said. “In fact, it’s fair to argue that hardly anybody knows what the rules are because they’re so confusing.”
The audit found that two previous board chairmen had, in some instances, “preauthorized airline fares that were clearly not coach fares,” in violation of city guidelines. Sessoms also took 14 trips without pre-authorization.
Sessoms generally bought business-class tickets for international flights and first-class ones for domestic flights. He said at the council hearing that a medical condition requires him to extend his legs during long trips.
The audit also found that travel-expense reports prepared by Sessoms’s aide did not properly segregate business expenses from personal expenses. The university originally reimbursed Sessoms, who sometimes traveled with family members, for hotel-room upgrades, additional rooms and rental car seats for his children. Sessoms has since reimbursed the university $3,777.
In his time as president, Sessoms has led the long-struggling university through a major reorganization, overseeing the creation of a community college under the institution’s auspices.
Although his contract includes a number of perquisites — a tenured full professorship, use of a university residence, and a one-time $60,000 vehicle allowance, which Sessoms used to buy a Lincoln Navigator — his salary is set at $295,000.
The salary is lower than those of presidents at many state universities — John T. Casteen earned $487,000 last year as president of the University of Virginia, for instance, and C.D. Mote Jr. made $464,600 when he was president of the University of Maryland — but it is higher than salaries of local community college presidents. Montgomery College President DeRionne Pollard makes $250,000, and Northern Virginia Community College President Robert G. Templin Jr. earned $234,000 in 2008, according to a Chronicle of Higher Education survey.
According to the UDC audit, Sessoms charged the university $9,778 for gas, insurance, parking and other vehicle expenses since Oct. 1, 2008 — as allowed under his contract. Sessoms was also provided a driver, as other UDC presidents have enjoyed, at a rate of $39 an hour — costing the university $51,380 for four months combined in 2008 and 2009 before the contract was ended.
Sessoms is entitled to yearly salary increases at the board’s discretion, but he has not been given a raise. However, the board granted Sessoms a $25,000 bonus in 2010, Etter said.
According to the contract, yearly bonuses of up to $30,000 can be awarded based on “achievement of mutually agreed goals,” including “progress toward implementation of a comprehensive University strategic plan”; establishment of a community college under UDC auspices; and the development of “aggressive” public relations, marketing and fundraising plans.
Sessoms’s initial contract was for three years, set to expire in September. But the contract includes a provision for an “automatic” two-year extension. Etter said the extension has been granted.
“The reality here is that we have to compete on a major-league stage. We have to compete with Georgetown; we have to compete with George Washington,” Etter said. “If you want to be seen as a legitimate university, you have to act like a legitimate university. That’s what we’re doing.”