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Regents size up accounting

Profile image for By Jenna Duncan and Holly Hacker
By Jenna Duncan and Holly Hacker

Task force formed to focus on oversight of UNT financial issues

University of North Texas System regents are starting to ask hard questions about the financial problems that have consumed UNT for the last several months.

“How do I ensure I’m being told the truth?” said Brint Ryan, chairman of the Board of Regents. “This board has heard people get up here time and time again and tell us everything is fine.”

Ryan spoke Thursday during the first meeting of a new financial oversight task force. Regents formed the oversight group to help resolve financial reporting and budgeting problems that total more than $100 million and go back years.

Among the big discoveries in recent months: UNT in Denton misspent $83.5 million in state money over a decade. The university took state funds to pay for salaries and benefits that should have come out of other funds.

Also, past UNT finance officials swept years’ worth of unreconciled accounts into one big one. It wrongly showed that UNT expected to receive $23 million. That made UNT’s financial position look better than it was.

On Thursday, regents asked to start receiving the same weekly updates that system finance chiefs get. They questioned the consultants hired to help UNT overhaul its financial reporting and budget practices. They stressed the need for outside audits.

Consultants from Deloitte and Touche said they’re going through UNT’s recent accounts to make sure they’re reconciled correctly, with paperwork to prove it. In the past, the final steps of this process were ignored, or the accounts weren’t double-checked as much as they should have been, said Blake Rogers, audit senior manager with Deloitte. Sometimes, the wrong people were doing the wrong things, and the data hasn’t always been solid.

The UNT System is hiring another firm to revamp the system that tracks all money spent and received, known as the chart of accounts.

The system is also preparing for a big financial audit by an outside firm — an audit that had to be postponed so the system could get its books in order.

“It hasn’t been the system’s habit to have an external audit,” regent Al Silva said Thursday. “If we don’t have an objective third party to look at it, people tend to get lax.”

After the meeting, Silva said an outside audit was necessary long ago.

“Trust and verify,” he said. “You have to do both.”

Last month the system’s longtime chancellor, Lee Jackson, traveled to Austin to tell Gov. Rick Perry and other top lawmakers about the $83.5 million in excess state funds, as disclosed in a recent audit.

On June 4, Perry ordered all state universities to do their own audits and make sure they’re not making mistakes that could cost taxpayers even more.

At the time, a Perry spokesman reminded regents to be “vigilant and proactive in their oversight.”

At the first Board of Regents meeting after Perry ordered the reviews, Jackson said Ryan wanted to start a task force to delve deeper into the financial restructuring than the full Board of Regents would in regular meetings.

The financial debacle raises questions about Jackson’s stewardship of the system. In a previous interview, he said he and the regents couldn’t have known about the problems since UNT’s finance team looked like it was doing a good job — turning in reports on time and not being questioned by the state.

“The financial reporting office at UNT was for many years a very stable operation,” he said last month.

JENNA DUNCAN can be reached at 940-566-6889 and via Twitter at @JennaFDuncan.