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Audit: University president spent $40K in policy violation

Posted: 6:14 AM, Jan 05, 2020
Updated: 2020-01-05 08:38:28-05
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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- Northern Arizona University paid more than $40,000 in travel expenses for President Rita Cheng and her husband that did not comply with university policies, according to a state audit.

The Arizona Auditor General released the report Friday citing Cheng spent more than $30,000 on business- and first-class airplane tickets to Russia last year plus additional replacement tickets, The Arizona Republic reported.

The trip included meetings with university and government officials such as the U.S. ambassador to Russia, but did not say what the trip was for, university officials said.

The university did not follow travel policies established by the Arizona Board of Regents or the Flagstaff university and put public money at risk, the report said.

"At no time were public monies at risk of misuse in our review," said Wendy Swartz, associate vice president for the NAU Comptroller's Office. "The report demonstrates a need for additional training."

The Northern Arizona University Foundation reimbursed the university $37,785 to cover the airfare to Russia, Tom Cheng's airfare to Israel, Russian visas, early check-in fees, valet parking and room service after the university discovered the results of the audit in November, university officials said.

Tom Cheng's trip to Israel included a $5,862 round-trip business-class ticket despite the event sponsor offering to pay for coach airfare for both the president and her husband, the report said. The president also reimbursed the university $179 for a duplicate hotel stay, the report said.

University officials believed they were following all policies and were unaware they were not properly documenting expenses, officials said.

The audit recommended improving review and documentation procedures and that all exceptions to travel policies should be pre-approved in writing, the audit said.

Each of the trips mentioned by the audit had a public purpose of "further advancing the institutional mission of the university," NAU Chief Financial Officer Bjorn Flugstad said. The trips led to "demonstrable results" such as enrolling new students or creating new visiting scholar programs, he said.