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State investigation finds Mt. Hood instructors may have misspent funds

Equipment missing from wilderness program; college reviews policies


Wilderness leadership instructors at Mt. Hood Community College may have misspent college funds in a program that also saw thousands of dollars of equipment go missing.

The college and Oregon’s Office of the Secretary of State announced Oct. 29 that they had been investigating Mt. Hood’s Wilderness Leadership Experiential Education program as well as allegations the college was not investigating personnel complaints in a timely manner.

In response, the college has “paused” or suspended the wilderness leadership program until a review is completed and plans to improve its inventory monitoring and handling of employee complaints as well as change its purchasing card and employee reimbursement policies, college officials said.

Citing contractual and personnel reasons, Dave Shields, the college board chairman, said he could not confirm a report in The Oregonian that Mt. Hood was also considering firing two instructors in the program. The state and college press releases did not name specific instructors being investigated.

Meanwhile, Ralph Yates, a former board member who tipped the state off to possible problems in the program, hinted that this may be just the beginning of revelations of problems at Mt. Hood.

“This was in the information that I gave to them but was not by any means all the information I gave to them,” he said. “I believe that the secretary of state (office) did a great job with their audit. It’s an appropriate and a good first step. The wilderness leadership program is simply one symptom of a larger problem at the institution and is not necessarily an isolated example of excess.”

Yates resigned Sept. 1 over concerns about financial and personnel issues at the college.

Background

The wilderness program provides land- and water-based training for students seeking certifications in first aid and CPR, outdoor education and other areas. The college has been investigating “irregularities” in the program since June 2011, according to a release from Mt. Hood President Michael D. Hay. The college requested the state’s assistance in its investigation, and the state’s auditors found the following:

• An inspection of the wilderness program’s inventory found about $13,000 worth of equipment missing.

“Without a regular, updated inventory of program equipment it is unclear what happened to the missing items,” the secretary of state’s office wrote. “While theft is one possibility, items may have been damaged, retired, lost, or may have been checked out and not returned by students.”

Some missing purchases seemed to be for personal use, either by instructors or students, the state added. Approximately $1,500 of the purchases appeared to match student requests for personal gear, the state added.

“In some cases we found emails where instructors requested reimbursement from the students and emails from students stating they would give the instructors money for the items that had been paid for with college or federal grant funds,” the state said, adding: “However, in following up with (college staff), we learned they could not find any deposits from students or the instructors in any of the student or program accounts.

“Also, an instructor provided students with a listing of fees for damaged gear but we found no record of whether any such fees had been charged to students.”

• The state found instructors may have exceeded restaurant reimbursements by hundreds of dollars. Traveling instructors are given a per diem of $25 per day for meals, but in a number of cases, that limit was exceeded.

• College funds were also spent on such items as balaclavas, a baseball hat, pants, jackets and sunglasses, greeting cards, games, toiletries and candy in possible violation of state law. Instructors may have also violated state ethics laws by using credit card membership rewards improperly.

“For the purchases we reviewed, there was no evidence that rewards were used for purchases of program supplies and equipment,” the state said. “If the instructors used these rewards for personal purchases or kept a cash reward, they may have violated state ethics laws, which prohibit public officials from personally benefiting from their official position.”

Fixing the problem

In his press release, Hay said the college was implementing monthly inventories of college equipment; updating its per diem policies; requiring college staff cardholders to undergo new training on policies; spending more time on reviewing and approving purchases and streamlining its process to handle personnel complaints.

“Mt. Hood Community College is committed to ongoing fiscal responsibility and inventory control,” Hay said.

To view the state report and the college's response, visit mhcc.edu and click "MHCC, State Complete Joint Review."



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