The investigative arm of the Student Association is examining a series of questionable expense reports by Sen. J.P. Blackford (G-SEAS) for alleged offenses that may lead to his removal from the student government.
The office of Judicial and Legislative Affairs began an investigation Wednesday into an expense report Blackford filed on behalf of the Engineers’ Council for a conference he attended in January. Blackford both filed and approved the Expenditure Approval Form, which paid for conference registration fees totaling $440.
SA bylaws state that only an executive financial officer can approve such forms and that individuals cannot approve their own expense reports.
A separate JLA investigation is looking into an April 30 expense report filed by Blackford for $136 allegedly spent on “soda and ice” at Riverside Liquors.
In the most recent investigation, Blackford has come under fire from the Engineers’ Council, a parent organization for student groups within the School of Engineering and Applied Science.
An EAF filed by Blackford on Nov. 26, 2001 shows he spent $440 for an engineering conference he attended in Nova Scotia, Canada, in January. The form, which requires the signature of the requesting organization’s financial officer, was signed by Blackford, then-vice president of the group, who identified himself as a financial officer.
Current Engineers’ Council President Vikrant Duggal said only the president and treasurer are authorized as executive financial officers of the group. Duggal called the EAF “suspect.”
Blackford, chair of Senate Rules Committee, said then-Vice President for Financial Affairs Josh Friedman was responsible for catching procedural errors in EAFs.
Duggal said the form indicates Blackford broke an SA bylaw which states “no individual shall sign off as an authorizing signature on any form in which they will receive any personal benefits.”
Blackford said the SA bylaws can be interpreted in different ways. He said rules stating that individuals cannot approve forms for personal benefit are “generally interpreted to mean (personal) reimbursement.” Blackford contends that the fact that the SA paid back the conference, rather than himself, means he did not break any bylaws.
“It appears right now he was receiving personal benefit,” JLA Vice President Justin Oshana said. “There is no question about that.”
Blackford is subject to removal from the Engineers’ Council should the allegations prove true, Duggal said.
“We will take steps toward removal . but we’ll wait on the SA to determine if their bylaws were broken,” Duggal said.
The EAF was found when the current leadership of the Council investigated the group’s financial history, looking for inconsistencies. A copy of the Council EAF should be kept in SA office; however, Oshana said the SA copy has “disappeared.”
Engineers’ Council leaders said they are “concerned” about the EAF, noting other incidents are under investigation.
“We will not protect someone who did something wrong,” said Miriam Zimet, vice president of administration for the Engineers’ council.
Zimet said even if approval had been given, the improper filing of the form does constitute a violation under the SA bylaws.
Oshana said these and other EAFs under investigation are indicative of the need for an external audit of the SA’s finances.
In what SA President Phil Robinson called a “good faith gesture,” Blackford returned the $136 spent at Riverside last spring to SA coffers Tuesday. In a memo to SA leadership, Blackford said his reimbursement for the liquor store tab is not an admission of guilt.
“I am not admitting guilt but simply doing what I can to permit the Student Association . to move forward,” Blackford said in the memo, which included a copy of his check to the SA.
Oshana said the investigation of the expense report will continue despite the senator’s return of the funds.
Blackford said he purchased a keg of root beer from Riverside for an SA Senate/executive mixer following the last Senate meeting of spring term, which would account for almost $70 of the purchase.
Oshana said his investigation revealed that a “keg contract” required for the use of kegs has not been found in the store’s records.
Robinson said he was pleased by Blackford’s decision but acknowledged that the investigation is ongoing.
“It is still up to the students, through the investigation, to decide what happens,” he said.
The Senate created a sub-committee this fall to examine the need for an audit of SA finances following a $50,000 budget shortfall. The committee, which decided to look into the SA’s finances itself rather than conduct an external audit, is chaired by Blackford. It has yet to begin examining the finances because Blackford said the committee has been unable to find a suitable room.