Education

Auditor critical of University of Northern Iowa oversight of 2 programs

Report says former professor diverted $14,956 to personal account

Samuel Lankford
Samuel Lankford

Iowa’s state auditor is suggesting the University of Northern Iowa shore up its practices and policies related to contracts, organization bank accounts and conflicts of interest after determining one of its professors improperly diverted at least $14,956 of university collections into a personal bank account.

“It was not possible to determine if additional amounts were not properly deposited because adequate documentation was not available,” according to the audit made public Thursday by Auditor of State Mary Mosiman.

Concerns related to UNI’s Sustainable Tourism and Environment and Recreation Research and Service programs — housed within the College of Education’s School of Kinesiology, Applied Health and Human Services — although the recommendations were broader.

“The university has not established any policies regarding the establishment of bank accounts for organizations,” according to the audit. “As a result, accounts established on behalf of organizations may be maintained by the students, faculty advisers or other designated individuals.”

UNI officials requested the audit based on suspect actions by the programs’ former director, Samuel Lankford, who auditors report started at UNI in Aug. 20, 2001, and resigned July 15, 2015.

Lankford brought the Sustainable Tourism and Environment program, known as STEP, and the Recreation Research and Service program, known as R2S, to UNI from the University of Hawaii when he was hired in 2001 — although an Iowa state salary database shows UNI paid him $60,000 in both 1999 and 2000 while he was still working in the University of Hawaii’s School of Travel Industry Management as coordinator of the recreation and leisure science degree program.

Although the audit, which reviewed records between July 1, 2009, and June 30, 2016, found little institutional oversight, Lankford’s compensation at UNI increased from $59,000 in 2001 to $114,834 in 2014, according to state records.

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Lankford’s wife also worked at UNI, acting as program director for R2S, according to the audit.

Samuel Lankford resigned from UNI in July 2015 after his wife first left in May 2014. Both are now working at California State University in Fresno, or Fresno State, according to the audit and Fresno website.

UNI still lists the couple online as directing its STEP and R2S programs, which were funded by the U.S. Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education. Revenue was received from contracts established by the programs, according to the state audit.

The mission of STEP was to build cultural, social and environmental relationships in the tourism development process and use sustainable practices in the process, according to the audit.

R2S aimed to help public, nonprofit, private and commercial leisure service organizations with community planning, service assessment and professional training needs. Students helped with proposal writing, data collection, data entry and project reporting.

After the Lankfords resigned, UNI entered into three separate professional services contracts with Samuel Lankford, his wife and their son, who also was involved in the programming. The agreements didn’t list a specific project but extended from Dec. 1, 2015, to Feb. 29, 2016.

State records show UNI paid Jill Lankford $4,000 in 2015, but no subsequent payments were recorded to Samuel Lankford.

UNI officials became suspicious and alerted the state when Lankford — after his resignation — asked the institution to pay the UNI Credit Union $7,500, according to the audit.

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The money, he noted in the request, was to pay students. But UNI rejected the request because students are supposed to be paid through UNI’s payroll system.

Lankford in October 2015 again asked UNI to pay $7,500 — this time to Blank Park Zoo, prompting further university and state inquiry.

State auditors, through their investigation, found payments related to STEP and R2S projects were supposed to be sent to UNI, deposited and recorded in the university accounting system. Auditors tried to compile a list of relevant projects but couldn’t ensure it was complete “because sufficient records were not maintained by the university,” according to the audit.

Of the 44 projects identified, auditors couldn’t determine how much was deposited for 32 due to insufficient information.

For 12, auditors determined $61,370 was deposited — although they were unable to tell whether that squared with how much should have been deposited.

Additionally auditors were unable to find any bank account at the UNI Credit Union tied to the programs. To determine if any collections were diverted, they reviewed Lankford’s personal bank accounts and found at least $14,956 was improperly deposited to his account.

“Because we are unable to determine if Dr. Lankford held personal bank accounts at any other financial institutions, we are unable to determine if additional collections for other STEP/R2S projects might have been diverted to other accounts,” according to the audit.

The state also took issue with potential nepotism involving the Lankfords — as he and his wife oversaw the two programs, and the couple’s son was involved.

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“The university requires staff to disclose all conflicts of interest and nepotism,” according to the audit. “University officials could not locate any support which documented Dr. Lankford’s family members worked within the same area of University operations.”

University officials, according to the audit, said the department didn’t require conflict of interest memorandums of understanding and the relationship didn’t violate UNI’s nepotism policy because Lankford’s wife did not report to him.

Still, auditors suggested UNI ensure all employees complete conflict of interest and financial disclosure forms annually and review them — in addition to establishing more sound policies and practices regarding the establishment of bank accounts for campus organizations.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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