News: CJ Exclusives

NC College Audits Find Problems

Conflict-of-interest, misuse of state resources cited by state auditor’s office

The president of the N.C. Center for Applied Textile Technology created the appearance of a conflict of interest by accepting outside teaching jobs, the State Auditor’s Office said in an investigative audit released last week.

The auditor’s office was asked to review the secondary employment of the center’s president, James L. Lemons, by the president of the State Community College System. While that review was in progress, additional allegations were reported through the state auditor’s hotline, but those allegations were not substantiated.

At the time of the review, Lemons was teaching four courses at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The center is located in neighboring Gaston County. Three of the classes met during daytime hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while the fourth course met on Saturdays. Lemons also had previously taught at Belmont Abbey College while employed by the center.

The chairman of the center’s board, and a majority of the trustees, told auditors they were aware of the secondary employment, but some of them were not aware the classes met during regular working hours. The chairman had signed secondary employment forms for Lemons, but board minutes did not indicate board approval of the outside work.

Auditors said the outside employment during regular business hours of the center created the perception of a conflict of interest, and recommended that Lemons end the practice. Lemons’s contract with UNC-Charlotte expired in December and he informed the university he would no longer be teaching.

“In public life, perception often becomes reality,” State Auditor Ralph Campbell said. “The president’s outside teaching work created a perception that he was not performing his primary job, even though trustees and center employees said there was no doubt he worked 40 hours a week for the Center. He did the right thing in ending the appearance of a conflict.”

College competed with private businesses

On another community-college matter, the state auditor’s office concluded in a recent investigative audit that the president of Blue Ridge Community College, Dr. David W. Sink, Jr., used his state-paid technology staff to provide computer services to private organizations, including some services that were available from private businesses.

Auditors found, for instance, that the college provided about 159 hours of technical support in May 2003 for the Immaculate Baking Company for the baking of the “world’s biggest cookie.” The promotional event included a live webcast that required the college technical staff to route data through the college computers to the Internet.

The college dean for technology and development signed an agreement in 2002 to develop an Internet website for the Hendersonville Chamber of Commerce; and the college has provided technical support for the National Technical Honor Society. Auditors said providing technical services to private organizations for fees could violate state laws that bar government agencies from selling merchandise or services in competition with private citizens.

Auditors also questioned an offer made by Sink at a Rotary Club meeting to provide technical services from the college for a Rotary Club website in exchange for donations to the Blue Ride Community College Educational Foundation. Equipment purchased for the college by the foundation, a separate legal entity, was not accounted for properly, investigators said.

“This is a point we make over and over again, but apparently it bears repeating,” Campbell said. “State-paid time and state equipment must not be used for private purposes or private benefit. The money to support these technical services at Blue Ridge Community College comes from the taxpayers, who expect that those services will benefit the college and its students, not private organizations or in competition with private business.”

Wagner is editor of Carolina Journal.