Audit: Education Commissioner Overspent on Hotels, Travel

hotel expenses to violate policy and called the four Saturday 2017 hotel rooms an "abuse of state resources"

By Molly Priddy

HELENA — An audit found the Montana office of the Commissioner of Higher Education overspent on lodging, travel and meals, including hotel rooms for members of the Board of Regents and staff before the previous two Cat-Griz football games.

Commissioner Clayton Christian agreed with recommendations by legislative auditors to better monitor spending by the agency that includes the Montana university system and the state Board of Regents, Lee Newspapers of Montana reported Wednesday.

The Legislative Audit Committee is scheduled to meet June 25-26 to discuss the issue and other recent audits. The office declined further comment until the meeting.

The Board of Regents holds meetings on the Thursday and Friday before each Montana-Montana State rivalry football game in the city where the game is played.

The meetings adjourn on Friday morning, but auditors found the commission paid for 10 hotel nights on the Fridays before the 2017 and 2018 games. The office also paid for four hotel rooms the night after the 2017 game in Bozeman, they said.

Auditors found the Friday night hotel expenses to violate policy and called the four Saturday 2017 hotel rooms an “abuse of state resources.”

Auditors also found officials flew instead of drove to events in eastern Montana in 2018, costing the state about $4,800 more than if the officials had driven.

The office said flying was the most economical, efficient and beneficial mode of travel considering factors that included other business engagements that followed. However, those reasons were not documented, the audit found.

The agency also purchased a one-way airline ticket from the United Kingdom to Colorado in 2018 for a vacationing staffer to attend a Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education Conference.

The agency argued the $1,032 flight was comparable to the cost of a round-trip flight from Helena to Denver. Auditors found it likely cost about $200 more.

Auditors are recommending the agency keep lodging costs as low as possible, document the business need for all travel and ensure the most economical mode of travel is used or limit reimbursement to the lowest-cost travel method.

Auditors also found instances when catered meals for meetings exceeded per-diem allowances and suggested the agency develop a policy for such purchases.

The report said the commissioner’s office violated office policy in failing to limit travel of non-employees to conferences for the federal Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or GEAR UP.

Auditors suggested the agency develop a rotation for participation for non-employees for out-of-state training or limit participation to one non-employee per school.