COLUMBIA, S.C. – Audits have been ordered for South Carolina's three research universities after revelations that their trustees spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on luxury hotels, expensive dinners and travel to football games.
The South Carolina's Commission on Higher Education's director, Gary Glenn, said the state inspector general was being asked Friday to review "alleged excessive spending" by the boards overseeing Clemson, the University of South Carolina and the Medical University of South Carolina.
The commission voted unanimously Thursday to request the audits after a report by The Post and Courier of Charleston that MUSC board members were reimbursed $560,000 over five years for spending on luxury hotels, dining and alcohol while in Charleston for meetings.
While the article focused on MUSC's board, the newspaper reported finding that Clemson's governing board spent more — $750,000 since 2011 — and that trustees of USC, the state's largest university, spent less than $400,000 in that time frame. Clemson and USC boards each spent more than $100,000 on football travel.
"In an environment of skyrocketing costs and runaway spending in higher education, the timing of this news article could not be worse," commission Chairman Tim Hofferth said in a prepared statement. The agency's "responsibility is to protect the students, families, and taxpayers of South Carolina. In order to properly address this situation, the first step is to be proactive in trying to find the facts."
He said commissioners would decide how to respond after getting the audit's results. That could take months.
It's unclear what they could do.
MUSC officials contend most of their reimbursements come not from public money, but from a private nonprofit corporation set up to benefit the medical university's hospital.
An exemption in state law allows university trustees to set their own travel expense rates, and use money made from student athletics, activities, canteens and bookstores to reimburse trustees above normal per diems.
According to the newspaper, MUSC trustees' hotel stays accounted for nearly $100,000 of the spending, with rooms at Charleston Place and Planters Inn. Other expenses during the trustees' six or so meetings annually included $37,400 on a 2014 Christmas banquet, $160 bottles of wine, and dining at the city's finest restaurants, regularly including trustees' family members and other guests.
MUSC spending guidelines, set by the trustees, allow reimbursements to pick up the tab for trustees' guests if they have "a clear connection or future/potential connection to MUSC."
Such reimbursements are illegal, however, for other state employees on business trips. By law, non-college board members are limited to a $35 daily allowance plus $25 a day for meals and standard mileage. If they require a hotel room, they must abide by rates set by the federal government.
Two prominent legislators told The Post and Courier they plan to investigate the matter when the Legislature returns in January.