Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Report details financial mismanagement at USF Poly


Two top administrators at the University of South Florida Polytechnic are facing dismissal after an investigation into complaints of financial mismanagement at the Lakeland campus.

And the former leader of the school, Marshall Goodman, could soon be under further investigation himself.

USF officials are recommending those actions after completing a two-month ethics review at USF Poly, which soon will become an independent school. Not only did investigators find that USF Poly officials misused money, their report outlines a dysfunctional world that one employee dubbed "Marshall Goodman's own playground."

Among the findings:

• USF Poly leaders laundered state education dollars through building rental payments to pay for unauthorized perks, such as a soda fountain in one of its Polk County business incubators.

• State education money was also used to pay for thousands of dollars in household appliances, including microwaves, coffee makers and vacuums.

• Technology purchases, including a $400,000 video and audio wall that some said was too advanced for students, were made without approval from the main USF Tampa campus.

• There was no proper accounting for thousands of dollars in building rentals and improvements.

When employees asked questions — including why it was necessary to buy $10,000 worth of Star Wars statues or why a business incubator needed an adult-size plastic slide between its first and second floors — they were yelled at and threatened, employees told investigators.

When they argued, they said, they were shut out of discussions. The repeated message from Goodman, they said, was loud and clear: "Get it done."

In the end, investigators recommended that USF fire both Alice Murray, campus regional vice chancellor for planning and facilities, and Josh Bresler, who handled the campus budget. Both, the findings said, knowingly violated university policies.

In addition, investigators said USF should continue looking into Goodman in light of evidence that he created a hostile environment "that resulted in violation of policy and statute."

Investigators also recommended a campus financial audit; further review of the human resources department because of concerns it breached confidentiality; and a review of the use of security cameras, which some employees feared were used to keep an eye on them. (Murray, in an interview with investigators, likened the situation to a "Gestapo state.")

The report comes at an interesting time.

Under legislation signed last week by Gov. Rick Scott, USF Poly will soon cease to exist. The pet project of departing Senate Budget Chairman J D Alexander, the campus will now be split off into the state's 12th university, Florida Polytechnic, effective July 1. Current students, faculty and some staff will remain with USF under a "teach-out," funded with $10 million attached to the bill.

All of USF Poly's state funding and assets will be given to Florida Poly.

Neither Murray nor Bresler returned messages seeking comment. Goodman responded through his attorney, Robin Gibson, who said the whole thing "just looks awful" on USF's part.

Without having read through the report, Gibson would not comment on specifics, saying only: "It just looks like it's vindictive, and that is really unfortunate."

USF says the timing of the investigation is unrelated to the split. Investigators were merely responding to an anonymous complaint about activities that happened while USF Poly was part of the USF system.

"It had nothing to do with the politics of the moment," said spokesman Michael Hoad. "We would have been happy to see all these issues behind us."

Oddly, the investigation started with a soda fountain.

In February, someone at USF Poly reported their suspicion that Goodman had a deal with the owner of the campus' business incubator in Winter Haven to charge USF Poly a higher rental rate with the understanding that the campus would get a kickback.

USF investigators could not confirm that the rent was above market value, nor could they prove that a "cash swap" occurred. But they said they discovered that the owner had agreed to pay for a Coca-Cola fountain in the facility, then billed USF the costs — almost $5,000 over about two years.

USF Poly paid the bill with state funds, investigators said, which are not supposed to pay for refreshments.

Bresler oversaw the transaction, the report says, and Murray's emails show she knew what was going on.

When investigators recently told USF Poly employees about that finding, things snowballed.

People approached the interim chancellor, David Touchton, to say that if transactions were made in violation of USF policy, "it was done because of threats by Dr. Marshall Goodman."

That launched an investigation into the employee environment on campus.

In interviews, investigators were told that when there wasn't a funding source for something Goodman wanted, he simply instructed his staff to "get it done." That sometimes meant dipping into state funding for education or mischaracterizing things in public records.

The soda fountain, for example, was called "equipment rental." The Star Wars statues were called "furniture."

Once, when a group of high-ranking employees questioned that strategy, Goodman pointed his finger at them and said, "I pay your salary," records state. There was talk that he would demote or fire those who defied him.

So people kept quiet, investigators were told, even when witnessing things that made them cringe. Such as when Goodman hired his 27-year-old son, Robert Goodman, to the Blue Sky program, paying him $50,112 a year.

The son's boss, Travis Brown, told investigators Goodman was so unprepared for the job that Brown had to rewrite his job description. And Brown said he, himself, was recruited to run the program under false pretenses.

USF Poly told Brown the school had 30 MBA students, for instance, when it had three. The demand for the program, Brown quickly realized, was bleak.

"A visionary creates ideas that are doable," Brown said, referring to Goodman. "A child can think up a unicorn."

Goodman's other son, Steven, was Blue Sky's first client. And that son also got a paycheck from USF Poly: $3,000 as a social media consultant.

Brown has since decided to resign.

Another troubling account involved USF Poly's new campus off Interstate 4.

After renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava was chosen to build the first building on campus, Goodman told top staff he also promised Calatrava the second building, a wellness center, the records show.

Brian Mahaffey, USF Poly's facilities director, insisted the campus put out a formal request for proposal, or RFP, before granting Calatrava the bid.

Goodman finally agreed, Mahaffey told investigators, but said "he would pick the people" to evaluate candidates for the job.

Murray's interview with investigators corroborates that account. She said she was also told to increase the size of the Calatrava project from $47 million to a total of $100 million.

Murray had other complaints. She brought up Goodman's travel habits, pointing to a trip he took to Las Vegas for a conference the same weekend one of his sons was getting married there.

Murray also complained about Bresler, who she said wasn't qualified to handle campus finances.

Bresler told investigators that he, too, had concerns about the way Goodman wanted campus money spent. But he went along with orders anyway.

Still, Bresler told them, he was not aware of "any indiscretions that cannot be reconciled."

Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or 813-226-3337.

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