State officials are investigating whether the head of the Virginia Military Institute broke VMI rules by spending thousands of dollars in school funds to buy liquor and flowers for his personal quarters and to purchase gifts that he sent to friends of the college.
VMI Superintendent Josiah Bunting III made the purchases with money from a school account that was designed to cover expenses he incurred while promoting VMI. Although VMI is a public college, the $115,000 account is funded by private donations rather than state taxpayer money.
The state's auditor of public accounts, Walter Kucharski, said he has completed a report detailing how Bunting spent the money and has forwarded it to the Virginia State Police. Kucharski declined to discuss his findings, but he said it will be up to VMI's trustees to determine whether Bunting's spending violates the guidelines they established when they set up the fund.
"It is not clear-cut because this money was not state-appropriated," Kucharski said. "We were investigating whether this money was intentionally misspent."
Bunting, who took over as the school's top administrator four years ago, said in a telephone interview yesterday that all the expenses were for "common business practices" directly associated with VMI and that none of the money was put to his or his family's personal use. He added, however, that many of the items were "things that a competent and diligent auditor would question."
"Virtually everything mentioned is connected with the efforts I have made to invigorate VMI and to do the kinds of marketing necessary to advance the interests of the school, particularly as we try to make ourselves more attractive in admissions and raise our profile," Bunting said.
Bunting overspent his discretionary account by about $120,000 in his first three years as superintendent, according to VMI officials. They said the expenses in question amount to much less than that, although they could not give a specific figure and Kucharski declined to provide one.
The Roanoke Times reported yesterday that VMI records show Bunting in the last two years spent about $16,000 for flowers and $12,000 for books and made several purchases of alcohol for $350 or more. VMI officials said they could not confirm those figures but believe them to be accurate.
VMI spokesman Mike Strickler said VMI's business staff raised questions about a number of purchases from Bunting's account, including flowers and alcohol for Bunting's personal quarters, where he often entertains visitors. Strickler said school officials then notified Kucharski's office, which was conducting a routine audit of the school.
"There is nothing sinister here at all," Strickler said. "Our records are meticulous, and there is nothing to hide. We are cooperating fully with the auditors."
Bunting said he bought flowers not only to decorate his quarters but also for receptions on campus, for funerals of VMI alumni and as gifts to friends of the college. He said some of the books were purchased as gifts, others to help him prepare for the three courses he teaches at VMI.
Bunting has presided during one of the most controversial periods in VMI history, as women were admitted to the school in 1997 for the first time. He also is embarking on a school fund-raising drive in which he hopes to raise close to $200 million from alumni.
Bruce Gottwald, president of VMI's Board of Visitors, defended Bunting's use of the superintendent's account. "I firmly believe that these funds have been used for the purposes intended by the VMI Board of Visitors," Gottwald said.
Board member Charles Lindsey, however, said he reviewed some expenses this week and has questions about several of them.
But Lindsey said board members have long known that Bunting was overspending the account and did not raise any objection. In fact, Lindsey said, the board increased the account from $100,000 to $115,000 this year, believing that Bunting needed more money for travel to talk to VMI alumni about coeducation, among other expenses.
Board member Anita Blair said she was unfamiliar with the details of the auditor's investigation and is awaiting the report that the board is to receive next month.
"You just always want to make sure that the purposes of the school are being furthered," Blair said. "It's a question as to whether it's better to spend money on flowers or on scholarships. You always have to apply a rule of reason to these things."