The Nebraska Highway Commission inappropriately used state resources to solicit money for a golf outing, cocktails and dinner at one of the nicest facilities in the state, according to an audit released on Thursday.
Much of the $5,100 in contributions for social events held in conjunction with an official Highway Commission meeting at Lied Lodge in Nebraska City in June came from engineering firms that do business with the state. The executive secretary for the commission, since retired, used state time to solicit the contributions by writing letters using state letterhead. And of the $5,100 that was collected, $3,150 was deposited in the state accounting system.
"Highway Commission members should not be using their positions as government officials to solicit cocktails, meals, hotel expenses and rounds of golf or anything else that results in personal gain," said a statement from State Auditor Mike Foley's office.
"The use of a state employee to solicit contributions from outside corporate interests to pay for these only compounds the offense."
Foley said the matter will be referred to the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission for possible punitive action.
The highway commissioner who helped arrange the event called the suggestion that the Highway Commission acted unethically "ridiculous." The commissioner, Rodney Vandeberg of Falls City, added that the same practice of using state time and resources to solicit contributions from companies that do business with the state to help pay for the once-a-year social event has been done for years.
"I don't see a problem at all," Vandeberg said. "It's a little thing (Foley's) picked up on."
"Maybe she should have kept the money in a separate account," he said of the commission's now-retired secretary. "But I think this is all absolutely ridiculous, it's been going on for years and these are people who do business with the state."
The practice raises questions about whether the commission is inviting engineering firms and other companies that vie for state-highway contracts to curry favor with the commission by donating money for the social events.
Vandeberg said that's not the case because contracts are awarded to who submits the best bids.
"This doesn't give those people favors at all," Vandeberg said. "It's just public relations."
In the letter, now-former Highway Commission Executive Secretary Shirley Schafer wrote to companies asking them to contribute money or time to events including a golf outing, lunch, cocktails, dinner, and a bus tour of highway improvements, she said "your participation will definitely be acknowledged."
In it's response to the audit findings, the Highway Commission didn't dispute the problems highlighted by Foley, saying "proper controls were not in place" and that it has taken steps to ensure similar problems don't occur again.