Professor suspected of traveling with public funds
RALEIGH — A state audit released Thursday said a North Carolina State University professor took Outer Banks trips using public funds but could not provide documents designed to show the travel was work-related.
State Auditor Beth Wood's office said Thursday that Stacy Nelson, an associate professor of forestry and natural resources, spent nearly $3,400 from state grant funds on two trips in July and August 2011. He and his family stayed in July at the Sanderling Inn near Duck at a rate of $588 per night for three nights, according to the investigative report.
"The lack of documentation, timing of trips, and inclusion of family members, raised a number of questions regarding the necessity and work-related purpose of these trips," the report authors wrote. Without documentation supporting a business purpose, the grant funds should have not been used to pay for the travel, the report added.
Nelson had successfully sought a grant from the state Department of Transportation for N.C. State University to examine whether remote sensing equipment could be used to monitor underwater vegetation in Currituck Sound.
Nelson said he went to the coast to validate sound data from plant and water samples performed a year earlier but did not retain paperwork with those results after they were recorded, according to the audit. University policy required records be maintained at least three years, the report said.
In a formal response to the audit, N.C. State University said the record-keeping policy for researchers is being re-emphasized and the school's College of Natural Resources is ensuring the travel funds "are fully reimbursed to the grant." The research is on track to being completed and will "provide important understanding of our cultural resources," the university said.
In a phone interview, Nelson said research results were produced during the trips taken. He said there are few options for accommodations in the northern Outer Banks near the research locale and renting a cottage in the summer would have been even more expensive.
The investigation followed a complaint to the auditor's fraud, waste and abuse hotline.