The director of a University of Washington program that helps high-poverty students go to college used her position to secure special privileges for herself and her family — including a hotel’s presidential suite — when traveling on business, the state auditor has found.
The auditor’s report also found that the director of the GEAR UP program, Loueta Johnson, required staffers to attend out-of-town dinners they described as “extravagant,” that she spent hundreds of dollars on car rentals and taxis, and that she failed to follow university, state and federal travel regulations in a wide range of circumstances.
The witnesses interviewed by the auditor told investigators that Johnson “was in travel status a great deal of the time. Witnesses overwhelmingly stated that instead of extensive travel, the money could have been spent on the intended use — the students.”
University officials said they believed most of Johnson’s travel and expenses were valid, but that they would do a review of the expenses and require Johnson and her staff to attend additional training.
The report, which covered travel in 2011 and 2012, did not provide a sum of how much money Johnson spent that was beyond the amount allowed under state travel rules, but many of the charges were in excess of the rules by hundreds of dollars.
Among the auditor’s findings:
- Johnson negotiated with hotels to receive upgraded accommodations, finding out how many rooms would need to be filled and for how many nights in order to receive an upgrade to a suite. The auditor found Johnson would then invite people who did not need to attend the meeting, such as support staff and summer interns, in order to receive an upgrade. On one occasion, she secured a hotel’s presidential suite for herself.
- During national conferences, Johnson required staffers to attend “extravagant” dinners that exceeded the allowed amount by at least $10 per person. In addition, Johnson would sometimes list people as having attended who did not attend.
- On a trip to Las Vegas, Johnson rented a car for $357 and drove it 26 miles. During a second trip to Las Vegas, she rented a car for $233 the day before the conference began and drove it 144 miles, somehow returning it after she was already on a flight for Seattle. “After pointing these issues out to the subject, she stated she flew out on Saturday, not Sunday, but was unable to clearly explain how the rental vehicle was checked in after her flight took off,” the auditor’s report said.
- Johnson usually chose to fly when she made trips from her home in Yakima to meetings in Seattle, Olympia and Tacoma between October 2011 and September 2012. The auditor found that it would have been cheaper for her to drive.
- When traveling, Johnson frequently arrived the day before an event and remained in town until the day after the event.