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UCF improperly transferred nearly $100M for construction, investigation finds

UCF improperly transferred nearly $100M for construction, investigation finds
The University of Central Florida has transferred almost $100 million in leftover operating dollars on construction since 2010, an investigation ordered by the state university system has found. (University of Central Florida / Courtesy photo)

UCF leaders improperly transferred nearly $100 million to capital accounts since 2010, the lead investigator for a probe ordered by the state university system said Thursday, though a full account of how and why the problem occurred may never come to light as several ex-school leaders aren’t cooperating with investigators.

The new dollar figure is nearly triple the amount the University of Central Florida spent to build Trevor Colbourn Hall, the project that was flagged by the state auditor general’s office last summer, kicking off a political firestorm involving the school.

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Lead investigator Joey Burby said his law firm has reviewed documents and interviewed more than 25 “witnesses” to the University of Central Florida’s spending practices involving leftover operating money. But some key figures, including former presidents John Hitt and Dale Whittaker, have refused to cooperate.

“To be brutally honest, it‘s going to be difficult to understand why these decisions were made when the people who were in the room will not speak to us and we have no ability to compel them to speak to us,” Burby told members of the Board of Governors on Thursday during a meeting in Tampa. He stressed the findings are preliminary and subject to change.

The Board of Governors, which oversees the state’s public universities, can’t compel people to participate in the investigation or issue subpoenas. Whittaker, who became university’s president in July after serving as provost for four years, has maintained he didn’t know the university was misusing state money. He resigned in February.

The Orlando Sentinel hasn’t been able to reach Hitt for comment since he left UCF at the end of June after 26 years as president.

But he wrote in a letter to Burby’s firm last year that the decision to use leftover operating dollars to build Trevor Colbourn Hall, an academic building that opened in August, was “known and condoned” by Whittaker and former CFO Bill Merck, who resigned in September.

The aging Colbourn Hall, which was adjacent to the new building, was quickly becoming dangerous and the university needed to quickly replace it, Hitt wrote in the letter.

Burby said current UCF leaders are cooperating with his effort.

The university supports the board’s investigation and is committed to “full cooperation and transparency," spokesman Chad Binette wrote in a statement.

“We have taken extensive measures to ensure we appropriately spend our money," he wrote. "These preliminary findings and our ongoing conversations with the Board of Governors will help us develop the strongest checks and balances and restore trust.”

Shortly after the finding about Trevor Colbourn Hall became public knowledge, UCF’s Board of Trustees hired the Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner firm, where Burby is a partner, to investigate which employees knew about the misspending.

The Florida House Public Integrity and Ethics committee determined early this year the university had improperly transferred $85 million to capital accounts between 2013 and 18. After trustees declined to expand Burby’s probe beyond Trevor Colbourn Hall, the Board of Governors demanded the investigation continue at the university’s expense.

To date, UCF has paid more than $1 million to Burby’s firm.

For the most recent review, Burby and his team looked at construction projects valued at more than $2 million going back to 2010, uncovering $16.1 million for three projects that was transferred in 2012. The university also transferred more money for a fourth project between 2014 and 2016 than had been originally reported.

“This kind of debunks the claim at the beginning of this thing that there was an emergency at Colbourn Hall, that had to act quickly to spend $38 million for safety reasons, doesn’t it?” asked a member of the Board of Governors, whose identity was unclear from a recording of the meeting.

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Burby said his firm is still trying to determine how much operating money was actually spent, and that information will be included in the final report. The firm is also doing a “deeper dive” into each project to try to determine how the decision was made to use leftover operating money and who was involved in the decision.

But, he cautioned, that might be impossible because the people closest those decisions won’t talk to investigators.

The Board of Governors can’t issue subpoenas, but member Tim Cerio suggested the group try to pursue legislation that would give them that power during the next session.

“This is a perfect example of why that’s critical," Cerio said.

The Board of Governors also took aim at university trustees.

“I don’t understand why people aren’t jumping up and down about this and getting to the bottom of it,” said board member Edward Morton, suggesting trustees were slow to investigate issues within their own institution.

Vice Chairman Sydney Kitson said “a lack of accountability and participation among the Board of Trustees" enabled the misspending to occur.

“I think they’re taking action to change that, but they are responsible,” he said.

The Board of Governors appoints five of the 13 university trustees, and board member Alan Levine suggested they look into ways to remove those who provide lax oversight.

“These aren’t lifetime appointments," he said.

Burby said his final report should be complete in time for the Board of Governors’ next meeting on Aug. 28 and 29.

[email protected] 407-420-5120

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