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State audit finds fiscal abuse at SUNY foundation

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New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli says an audit has revealed several abuses at the State University of New York Research Foundation. 

DiNapoli says taxpayer dollars have been misused over a number of years through misuse of credit cards, overpayments, and conflicts of interest. The audit also revealed a culture of employees who knew how to take advantage of weak internal controls.

The comptroller cited Edgar Turkle III, a senior research foundation official at Buffalo State College.  Turkle allegedly used a foundation credit card for personal purchases, including Buffalo Sabres tickets, Apple computer products, and trips abroad. 

DiNapoli reports a review of 424 of Turkle’s credit card transactions for the 48-month period of November 2007 through November 2011 found 348 purchases totaling $130,887 that were not business-related. Turkle has been terminated and the case has been turned over to law enforcement. 

DiNapoli says he will conduct a follow-up audit on how the foundation charges SUNY campuses for overhead costs. 

“For too long, SUNY Research Foundation employees took advantage of lax oversight to cheat taxpayers, skirt state laws and violate the foundation’s own policies,” DiNapoli said. “The Research Foundation needs to vastly improve its internal controls, budgetary oversight, and ensure compliance with all relevant laws and policies. The foundation needs to recover all misspent funds immediately and fundamentally change how it operates.”

SUNY responded to the audit Monday afternoon, saying many known issues are already subject to interal reform.

“Over the last two years SUNY leadership has overseen the most comprehensive review in the history of The Research Foundation, and as a result it is a markedly improved organization,” said Chancellor Zimpher. “From the beginning, SUNY and RF leadership have viewed the audit as an opportunity to acknowledge past problems and pledged full cooperation. The comptroller’s findings are confirmation that change was necessary. The RF is moving forward under the new leadership of Dr. Timothy Killeen, a world-renowned scholar and former National Science Foundation assistant director."

The foundation supports around $1 billion in research each year across the 30 SUNY-operated campuses.

Peter Taubkin, the foundation's director of external relations and corporate communications, says the foundation will try to get its money back.

"We agree that any funds inappropriately expended for personal use or which management believes are excessive or not in line with the RF's mission will be recovered [and] should be recovered where legally appropriate and feasible," Taubkin told WBFO News.

Buffalo State President Aaron Podolefsky says once inappropriate and unethical actions were found and the executive was fired, the college took tighter control of operations.