Audit questions UF's use of research money


Published: Sunday, July 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, July 1, 2007 at 10:53 a.m.

The University of Florida used money intended for research to cover other questionable expenses like the purchase of office furniture and catering services, according to the university's auditors.

While UF's research arm had procedures in place to appropriately distribute research dollars, it did not have sufficient mechanisms to track how that money was ultimately spent, a report issued in late May by UF's Office of Audit & Compliance Review states.


Click here for a PDF detailing the audit

Joelen Merkel, chairwoman of the UF trustees' audit committee, said she wants the audit to lead to more stringent oversight of research expenditures.

"I'm not happy with the findings," she said. "But the whole idea of doing an audit is to find areas where we can strengthen our controls."

The UF community "lacks a clear understanding" of the appropriate use of so-called "indirect cost" funds, according to the report.

Indirect cost funds are provided along with federal and state grants to help cover research-related expenses. Grant recipients are given some leeway in how to spend indirect cost monies, which can be used to upgrade facilities that serve research or pay salaries of administrators who help process grants. But state statute requires the expenditures be tied to research.

UF's auditing team intentionally looked at expenditures that might be questionable, and the audit doesn't indicate pervasive problems across the university, according to Tom Walsh, UF's director of sponsored research and compliance. Given the scale of UF's research enterprise, it's impressive the auditors found so few areas of questionable compliance, he said.

"The main message was it looks like everything is being done appropriately," Walsh said.

The auditors did, however, find several instances where research monies appeared to have been inappropriately spent. In a sample of 99 expenditures made in questionable accounts, auditors found that 34 percent "did not appear to support research."

According to auditors' notes obtained by The Sun, the questionable expenditures included nearly $3,500 for a new department chairman's office furniture. Walsh said he thought such an expenditure might still be permissible if the chairman was engaged in research, but others disagreed.

Janie Fouke, UF's provost, said the office furniture expenditure sounded inappropriate.

"That doesn't pass the smell test for me, but if you bought chairs for your research lab it would," she said.

Other expenses questioned by the auditors included $682 to cater an event in the Department of Endocrinology and $1,002 to purchase T-shirts promoting a wellness program.

On balance, Fouke said she didn't view the audit as a "scary report," but did think it pointed out the challenges of educating UF employees about appropriate use of research funds.

Up until recently, different units across the university were "playing by different rules" regarding expenditures of indirect cost funds, Fouke said.

"That was a system that was fraught with opportunity for mistakes to happen," she said. UF has since moved toward a centralized system, Fouke said, and the Division of Sponsored Research is also developing mechanisms to track how money is spent once it has been distributed.

"The scale (of problems) we're seeing here is not the scale that would probably attract the attention of a federal agency," Fouke said, "but that's why you do an audit."

Jack Stripling can be reached at 352-374-5064 or Jack.Stripling@gvillesun.com.

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