7Two former employees and one current employee in Fayetteville State University’s communications office improperly spent nearly $700,000 of university money, the N.C. Office of the State Auditor reported May 28. The findings have been forwarded to the State Bureau of Investigation to determine if crimes were committed.
The former employees cited in the audit include Joy Cook, who, as Fayetteville State’s former Associate Vice Chancellor for Strategic Communications, was head of the communications office. She reported to the chancellor’s chief of staff. Cook announced on May 8 she was newly hired as the director of communications for the Democratic lawmakers in the state House of Representatives.
Cook has since resigned from that role, the executive director of the state House caucus said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon.
Efforts to contact Cook were unsuccessful.
In a letter in response to the audit report and its recommendations, university Chancellor Darrell Allison told State Auditor Jessica Holmes that Fayetteville State agrees with the audit’s findings. He said the university has been implementing new policies and practices to prevent these types of problems from happening again.
Credit cards for purchases and travel misused
The audit says the employees used university-issued credit cards to make $692,239 in purchases that were not permitted under university policy or not properly documented per university policy, or both not permitted and not properly documented. This happened from Jan. 1, 2022, to Aug. 31, 2023, it says.
The audit says the employees involved with the credit card purchases were Cook, former Director of Digital Strategy Morgan Osley-Pratt, and Assistant Vice Chancellor for Marketing and Creative Services Tina Raines, who is still employed at Fayetteville State.
Some of the findings:
• 148 purchases totaling $464,627 were payments to individuals, consultants, or employees.
• 26 purchases totaling $91,340 were for payment of invoices.
• 17 purchases totaling $13,650 for computer equipment or software, travel, or gifts.
• 17 purchases totaling $5,506 were payments made for purchases on Amazon.com
Employees are not allowed to use the university-issued credit cards, known as Purchasing Cards or Procurement Cards, for these purposes, the audit says.
Fayetteville State issues other credit cards, known at Travel Cards, for employees to pay for travel expenses.
The audit says Cook and Osley-Pratt made Travel Card purchases that were not allowed under Fayetteville State travel policy:
• $71,792 for 26 payments to consultants.
• $1,276 for five payments via the CashApp mobile phone payment system.
• $5,395 for 20 purchases for lodging within 35 miles of the university. Employees aren’t allowed to purchase lodging unless their work activity is more than 35 miles away.
Osley-Pratt bought a $299 roundtrip airline ticket for her son to travel with her to Orlando, Florida.
The report says an employee — it doesn’t specify which one — incurred $1,843 in unnecessary travel expenses while visiting New York for a work-related conference:
• $270 to change the airline flight in order to arrive two days early.
• $739 in hotel and food expenses accrued by arriving two days early. These were paid with two university credit cards assigned to Cook.
• $368 to fly first-class to New York and return in premium economy class.
• $287 for a ride-share trip to and from a spa.
• $179 for a ride-share trip for a dinner.
Conflict of interest with side businesses
The university paid private businesses operated by four former employees — Cook, Osley-Pratt, former Digital Content Coordinator Ashley Moore, and former Copywriting Assistant Alta Braxton — a total of $165,570 while they also paid employees of the university, the audit says. Moore and Braxton were temporary employees, Fayetteville State told CityView.
This put them in a potential conflict of interest, the audit says. According to university policy, the audit says, a conflict of interest occurs when an employee’s performance of her job duties could be influenced by her financial interests.
The audit says:
• Cook’s business was paid $5,600.
• Osley-Pratt’s business was paid $48,733.
• Moore’s business was paid $54,287.
• Braxton’s business was paid $56,950.
The audit doesn’t name the businesses that received the money.
What is Fayetteville State doing about this?
In his letter to the state auditor, Chancellor Allison said Fayetteville State is taking steps to address the problems the auditor’s staff uncovered.
“The University agrees with the findings and recommendations presented and remains fiercely committed to conducting business in an ethical manner to retain public confidence,” he wrote.
Allison said two of the three permanent employees cited in the audit no longer work there. These are Cook and Osley-Pratt. He listed other steps including hiring new people to oversee purchasing and contracts, and more monitoring of payments, among other efforts.
“The University has conducted a campus-wide retraining on purchasing and travel card policies; conducted meetings with division units on Office of Human Resources processes which included a review of the University's Conflict of Interest policy and procedures; and improved our overall internal controls,” Allison wrote. “In collaboration with the UNC System, the plan moving forward includes a continuous culture of training and educating its employees and making ongoing process improvements.”

Editor's note: Reporter Paul Woolverton can be reached at 910-261-4710 and pwoolverton@cityviewnc.com. To read the full article, visit https://bit.ly/4bX4Je7

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