Audit: former IBL director misused grant money

The former director of the University’s Institute on Black Life (IBL) is under criminal investigation after a USF audit revealed he used grant money to purchase unnecessary equipment and other items, including a large plasma television and plane tickets for personal family trips.

Calling him “grossly negligent,” auditors said Geoffrey Okogbaa, also a tenured engineering professor, mismanaged more than $175,000 in grant money.

“Of course, we are extremely disappointed and dismayed by what we uncovered,” Vice Provost Ralph Wilcox said Monday night.

Okogbaa, 51, who has been at USF since 1989 and makes $119,295 a year, resigned from his position as director of IBL in July during a University Audit and Compliance investigation and is on paid annual leave until USF administrators decide whether he will remain on faculty. That process will include a peer review by fellow professors, which is an entitlement of tenured professors. Okogbaa is not teaching this semester.

USF has appointed Africana Studies associate professor Cheryl Rodriguez as IBL’s interim director.

University Police has sent the case to the office of State Attorney Mark Ober, who will decide whether Okogbaa will be charged with felony theft.

Okogbaa declined to comment when reached at his Tampa Palms home Monday night.

“Not at this time,” he said.

According to the audit, which was sent to Provost Renu Khator on Sept. 22, Okogbaa mismanaged a $105,000 grant from the U.S. Department of State intended to fund an exchange program. It also claimed two other grants worth close to $1 million were mismanaged.

According to the audit, under Okogbaa’s watch, IBL “unreasonably” or “unnecessarily” purchased the following with grant money:

• A 42-inch plasma television for its office, along with accessories and a warranty, for $3,891. • 20 unusable desktop computers and five unusable printers for a total cost of $21,694.• Six camcorders, a CD/DVD publishing system and two digital cameras for a total cost of $12,468.

The audit also uncovered other misuses of grant money.

Among them:• Okogbaa used more than $1,219 in grant money to purchase airfare and lodging for personal trips to see his family in Nebraska and Texas.• Okogbaa asked the University to reimburse him $2,200 for a trip he took to Nigeria to attend a conference even though an outside group, Digital Partners, granted him $5,000 to cover expenses.• Auditors couldn’t find travel receipts for $22,909 in travel costs. They also couldn’t find documents pertaining to $19,321 in charges to Okogbaa’s University purchasing card.• Okogbaa failed to keep sufficient payroll records and some employees were underpaid.• Over $9,000 was misused for transportation, including the rental of four luxury vehicles.• Okogbaa didn’t reveal conflicts of interest between personal business ventures and his duties as IBL director.

The IBL has been on campus since 1986. According to the audit, its mission is to “serve as a resource center on the African American and World African communities and those issues that affect their interaction with the larger world community.”

The misused money includes a $1.5 million grant from the Florida Department of Education for after school programs, which are designed to help low-income students by tutoring and providing field trips. The institute has received more than $2.5 million in state and federal grants since 2003.

This is third money mishap the university has faced within the year. In January, three high-ranking members of the English Language Institute were fired when $175,000 in checks and cash was found inside desks and under office supplies. The University lost $100,000 as some of the checks were too old to be deposited.

This April, the former director of USF’s Florida Charter School Resource Center used a university purchasing card to buy more than $37,000 worth of airfare, rental cars and hotel stays, among other things.

Wilcox said that after the ELI incident, USF revamped the way funds are handled to help prevent similar incidents. A new financial code of ethics was established and employees are now urged to report fiscal mismanagement to high-ranking administrators.

Wilcox added it was poor decision-making choices made by individuals, not the university, which led to the three incidents.

“While we have strengthened guidelines to have a greater sense of institutional control over such actions, none of this would have happened if it weren’t for the poor judgment of these individuals,” he said. “We wouldn’t have these stories on the front of newspapers if it weren’t for their actions.”