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Smaller and regional colleges and universities made $132,000 in illegal payments to an association that was created to lobby on their behalf, according to a legislative audit released Monday.
In 2013, the West Virginia Association of Regional Colleges and Universities was created as a 501(c)6 organization through the IRS and was registered with the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office in May 2014. The organization was exclusively comprised of college and university presidents, who are state employees.
The group — which included presidents of Bluefield State College, Concord University, Glenville State College, Shepherd University, West Liberty University and West Virginia State University — was dissolved in November 2015 after failing to submit annual filings and fees, which no longer authorized them to legally conduct business in West Virginia.
Despite the dissolution, the audit found the schools made $132,000 in unauthorized payments to the association between 2015 to 2021. At least $105,000 of those payments went toward lobbying on behalf of the schools.
Each of the participating colleges and universities made payments in varying amounts and took part in the association in different years.
Adam Fridley, manager of the West Virginia Legislative Auditor’s Office Post Audit Division, told members of the Legislature’s Post Audit’s Subcommittee that his office received word of the improper payments in March 2021 through the state Ethics Commission.
The Legislative Auditor’s office began investigating and contacted officials with the Secretary of State and Auditor’s office.
“Ultimately, based on our conversations with those two organizations, it appears that the significant difference in the way that the vendors names are listed in their respective systems contributed to the vendor not being flagged as non-compliant and allowed payment,” Fridley told the committee.
Fridley also noted that his office was confused that the association had been formed and was paying for a lobbyist when schools are not prohibited from doing so themselves under current law.
The Legislative Auditor office also determined that the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission also functions in a similar fashion as the West Virginia Association of Regional Colleges and Universities.
“Even if there was a need for one or more schools to procure lobbying services, we can’t really ascertain a good reason that it was done through a private association,” Fridley said.
While the Legislative Auditor offered no specific recommendations to the subcommittee, the report outlined statutory citations from other states that have enacted laws prohibiting taxpayer funds to be used for lobbying efforts, similar to a prohibition the Legislature enacted for professional and occupational licensing boards in 2019.