News: CJ Exclusives

UNC-Chapel Hill Reimbursed State Employee $27K for Commute

Deputy director continued traveling, even as questions plagued program

A military-aid initiative at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reimbursed one of its employees at least $27,000 to commute between North Carolina and her home in Virginia, even as questions about the program’s effectiveness and use of resources lingered.

Public documents and information obtained by Carolina Journal show that Susan Kerner-Hoeg, director of military relations for the Citizen-Soldier Support Program, booked $22,181 in commercial airline flights to the Triangle over the last three years and charged about $5,400 for mileage between 2007 and 2009.

Receipts also show that she spent nearly $25,000 on rental cars and lodging while in the Chapel Hill area on business. Since her employment began in October 2006, the university has repaid her a total of $76,558. Kerner-Hoeg is the second-highest-paid employee in the program, with an annual salary of $129,600.

Her reimbursements have come under scrutiny in recent months after an internal UNC-Chapel Hill review (PDF download), released in June, found evidence of waste and abuse in the program.

UNC-Chapel Hill announced Nov. 13 that it was trimming back the program, reorienting funding, and shifting leadership responsibilities. Kerner-Hoeg’s role is also changing — she won’t have a management function or travel to Chapel Hill as much.

“The review committee did recommend that the supervision of people be in Chapel Hill, and one factor in that was the expensive travel,” said UNC-Chapel Hill communications director Neil Caudle in a telephone interview.

CSSP is designed to help veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Hosted by the Odum Institute for Research in Social Science at UNC-Chapel Hill, its offices are located on the second floor of a mini-mall in downtown Carrboro, located southeast of Chapel Hill.

During the last two years, CSSP has helped to create behavioral health curricula, participated in behavioral health seminars, and worked with the U.S. Army JAG and others to assist military families with legal issues.

The internal review, however, found scant evidence to justify the program’s $10 million price tag, $5 million of which North Carolina U.S. Rep. David Price, D-4th District, obtained by an earmark. Instead, university officials criticized the program for having an “ambitious and ill-defined” mission, misappropriating funds to irrelevant activities, and potentially overpaying its employees.

An investigation by CJ revealed that CSSP paid six-figure salaries to over half of its employees. Because two of its top managers, including Kerner-Hoeg, lived in other states, there was little oversight of work responsibilities.

The program also paid an out-of-state consultant $150 an hour, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, for “strategic thinking and action” that included “developing and disseminating” the program’s bi-monthly electronic newsletter.

Citizen commuter

CSSP hired Kerner-Hoeg in 2006 to attract additional investment and to coordinate with officials at the U.S. Department of Defense. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area and commutes to the Carrboro offices on average two to three times a month, partly to supervise employees, according to university officials.

“She’s got a lot of contacts and a lot of knowledge about how that whole system works. That’s why she’s been used so much and very effectively,” said Tony Waldrop, UNC-Chapel Hill’s vice chancellor for research and economic development.

The biggest share of reimbursements came in 2007, when Kerner-Hoeg incurred about $7,500 in hotel fees, mostly from a Holiday Inn near the UNC-Chapel Hill campus.

Peter Leousis, deputy director of the Odum Institute, said that Kerner-Hoeg uses a rental car when “state cars are not available or when a car is needed after UNC motor pool hours.” When she isn’t required to travel to off-site meetings, she uses Chapel Hill’s free transit system, he said.

Kerner-Hoeg most often used commercial airlines to reach North Carolina. She occasionally traveled by car and asked for a mileage reimbursement.

North Carolina law limits in-state lodging reimbursements for university staff to a per diem rate of $65.90. Employees can exceed that amount, which Kerner-Hoeg did routinely, with the approval of the department head.

Although Kerner-Hoeg traveled most frequently, other staff also put in for reimbursements. Documentation provided by UNC-Chapel Hill shows that between January and February of this year, CSSP’s new director, Bob Goodale, was reimbursed $12,726.28 for travel, conference registration fees, and office supplies.

In a telephone interview, Goodale said most of the expenses were in-state and for training purposes.

“We had a number of training sessions in 15 different locations, so that’s a portion of it,” he said. “Then, in terms of doing the strategic plan, I interviewed face-to-face about 100 people.”

Auditors OK travel

An internal UNC-Chapel Hill audit released days before the review found that CSSP’s travel reimbursements for Kerner-Hoeg were appropriate based on her arrangement to work from home in Virginia.

“Based on the procedures performed, we determined that the travel reimbursements were appropriate based on departmental approval for the employee’s home in Virginia to be her duty station,” auditors wrote. “The sponsor of the programs has also approved this work arrangement.”

Asked if Kerner-Hoeg’s travel reimbursements were proper, Waldrop said he trusted the audit’s findings.

“Was it the perfect way of doing it? No, I don’t think it was the perfect way of doing it,” he said. “Was it something that [at the time] people thought was functional? I certainly trust that they did think so.”

A face-lift

In response to the review committee’s findings, CSSP is channeling resources to its behavioral health initiative and phasing out its community partnership effort. The program will pursue its revised goals with three fewer employees, too.

“What we’re looking for now is for the program to fulfill its potential, meet its contractual obligations, and take more advantage of some of the good work that has been done,” Caudle said.

The program also revamped its leadership structure. Beginning Nov. 16, Goodale, a former Harris Teeter CEO and N.C. Commerce Department official in the Hunt administration, succeeded Leousis as director. CSSP’s Web site previously listed Goodale as program manager for mental health.

Leousis, who served as director for two years, will still be principal investigator but won’t have a management role, said UNC-Chapel Hill spokesman Mike McFarland.

Goodale said Kerner-Hoeg would be a “real asset” to the program’s new behavioral health focus. “I’m really grateful for her knowledge, expertise, experience, and networks nationally,” he said.

Although all 13 members of North Carolina’s congressional delegation initially backed funds for CSSP, some lawmakers now say they won’t continue funneling money unless the program dramatically improves.

Waldrop said his expectation is that new funding will be there, but additional dollars are contingent on how the program fares in the future.

“Clearly, it will depend on their performance — not only from the standpoint of the university, but as well from the funders, whether there would be funding in the future to continue this,” he said.

Efforts to reach Kerner-Hoeg for comment were unsuccessful.

David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.