Board chairman says UDC may ask President Allen Sessoms to repay some airfare costs

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 10:27 PM

Trustees of the University of the District of Columbia may ask President Allen Sessoms to repay some of the money he spent on first-class airfare, the board chairman told D.C. Council members Tuesday in an occasionally heated oversight hearing on the school.

Council members chided Sessoms for the trips. They also faulted him for delivering incomplete travel records in response to a request from city officials. Sessoms, in turn, blamed poor record-keeping at the school.

"I do believe that when you've spent close to a million dollars on travel, you have to ask the question of what the university is actually getting," council Chairman Kwame R. Brown (D) said.

Since becoming UDC president in 2008, Sessoms has paid top dollar for first-class airfare on several occasions, according to expense records released last week by the university. Tuesday's meeting, scheduled as a routine hearing, turned into a forum on presidential travel. The trips have been a matter of escalating controversy this month, prompting a student protest Monday.

Under questioning from council members, university leaders said UDC policy would not normally cover the costs of luxury accommodations such as first-class travel.

"What I'm hearing is it's not appropriate, and yet first-class travel was taken," council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) said during her questioning of the UDC board chairman, Joseph Askew.

"Yes," Askew replied. He said that the board had requested an internal audit and that the findings are expected by month's end. Sessoms has said he, too, asked for an audit.

"If it is found that the president has flown first-class, unless he has the authorization to do as such, then the board will have to consider whether the president will have to reimburse the institution for flying first-class," Askew said.

Sessoms has said that he buys relatively costly refundable tickets to accommodate an ever-changing schedule and that he flies first-class on a doctor's recommendation. He has circulatory problems in his legs.

"For long flights, I have to have my leg elevated," he said. "The doctors tell me it has to, in fact, be above my heart."

Some council members challenged that rationale.

"There is bulkhead seating in the coach area. There is business class," Alexander said. ". . . That is not a valid excuse for me."

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said the spending "borders on recklessness."

Much of the outcry has focused on an $8,000 ticket to Egypt. Sessoms said he visited a UDC program at a private Egyptian university, which covered the cost of the flight. But UDC paid for other costly travel by Sessoms, and Brown alluded to trips taken by faculty members and detailed in expense reports sent to his office.

"What is going on in St. Thomas that we're taking trips to St. Thomas?" Brown asked, referring to one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. "There are trips to Hawaii. . . . I want to go into trips to Cocoa Beach, Florida. . . . What you can't do is sit there and take no responsibility."

Sessoms has received plaudits for pursuing an aggressive reform agenda at the university, carrying off a long-discussed division of the institution into a distinct community college and a four-year university.

But in Tuesday's session, council members questioned UDC leaders on the unusually high, 43-to-1, student-to-faculty ratio at the new Community College of the District of Columbia and on the $187,000-a-year salary paid to the coach of UDC's Division II basketball team.

At least one council member, Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), agreed with Sessoms on the virtues of flying first-class. He told the president, "I'm not going to travel to California on coach."

© 2011 The Washington Post Company