Egypt. London. Jackson Hole, WY and Torrey Pines, CA. First-class destinations for any seasoned traveler.
But we’re not talking about a vacation. We’re talking about your taxpayer dollars.
In a Fox 5 Investigation, we’re going to take you on a journey to find out where your money is really going.
Allen Sessoms is the President of the University of the District of Columbia.
It’s a job that comes with a $295,000 salary, a Lincoln Navigator and gas, and a $1.6 million home in Northwest, all expenses paid by the University.
But documents obtained by Fox 5, through a Freedom of Information Act Request, show Sessoms also spends tens of thousands of dollars on high-priced hotels and airfare.
TISHA THOMPSON: “How much would you pay for a plane ticket to Boston?”
UDC students were quick to answer.
STUDENT: "From here to Boston, definitely no more than $200."
STUDENT: "Like $400."
How about $1,443? That’s how much Sessoms spent to fly to Boston according to his credit card receipts.
A relatively cheap trip considering he spent $1,501, $1,716, $1,859 on flights to Chapman University in California. Sessoms sits on the university’s Board of Trustees.
And then there’s a $2,229 receipt for a First Class airline ticket to a conference in San Antonio, where he also spent double the average rate for his hotel room.
"That's a lot of money,” says Cincerae Lebaugh. She’s a freshman using student loans to pay her tuition. “We pay a lot of money to go to school,” she says. “You shouldn't waste money on flying to different places when we're out here trying to get our education."
The records raise questions about possible spending on his family.
A car rental receipt lists an additional charge for a “child seat” for a conference in San Diego.
UDC also shelled out thousands for the entire Sessoms family to fly to a conference in Jackson Hole, WY over the Fourth of July weekend.
The most expensive trip? Egypt.
Sessoms had plenty of room to stretch out when he flew to Cairo in a Business Class “Seat Bed.”
The cost? $7,952.
TISHA THOMPSON: “How many semesters’ worth of tuition is that for you?”
CINCERAE LEBAUGH: “That’s like, basically, my whole two years.”
After months of asking, UDC finally provided Fox 5 with a redacted itinerary which says Sessoms averaged a few hours a day visiting UDC’s sister university in Maadi, Egypt.
Then he went “sightseeing,” visiting “the pyramids,” and “shopping” at the local bazaar.
Rashard Smith is an UDC freshman and was furious when we showed him the receipts.
“I am supposed to be paying for an education,” Smith says.
His friend and fellow freshman Synde Williams agrees. “He wouldn’t be getting away with it if there was better management,” she says.
They may be right. The paperwork UDC gave Fox 5 is a mess.
Most trips are missing receipts and other documentation, prompting questions like…
Why did he spend more than $644 for one night in New York’s luxury hotel The Plaza? And why are there so many other, unexplained credit card charges in cities like Boston, Memphis and Oklahoma City?
Why did Sessom’s fly First Class to San Antonio when his “Authorization for Travel” form was marked “regular” airfare?
The Egypt trip forces the most expensive questions. Why did Sessoms buy the $7,952 ticket to Egypt only three days before he left? And how did he get back?
We know he made a stop in London because the receipts show he spent nearly a $1,000 on hotels and transportation while in the United Kingdom.
But UDC told us in an emailed statement “the documentation doesn’t exist” for why he was in the United Kingdom or how much he spent to fly back to the United States.
Also buried in the paperwork is a copy of a check for $6,175 written by Sessoms to UDC. The University declined to explain the purpose of the check.
"We're not an ATM," says D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh.
Cheh points out UDC’s president is expected to travel but admits she was dismayed at what we uncovered.
"This is a public university,” Cheh says. “Every dime that's spent is a dime paid for by the taxpayers or by the people who are paying tuition. There needs to be accountability.”
In an effort to get explanations for the travel and missing paperwork, Fox 5 met with representatives of the University.
After initially telling Fox 5 they would look for additional documentation, UDC spokesman Alan Etter wrote in an email that Sessoms, “does not wish to conduct an interview on this matter” but “travels frequently for purposes of engaging the academic community and promoting the university.”
Etter then added our “questions are still questions.”
So, we went to UDC’s Board of Trustees meeting where Sessoms was scheduled to speak.
But instead of President Sessoms, Alan Etter came out to talk to us.
ALAN ETTER: "He's not in the building."
TISHA THOMPSON: "He's not coming to a Board Meeting?"
ALAN ETTER: "He will not be here."
TISHA THOMPSON: "Was he coming to the meeting before we asked?"
ALAN ETTER: "I would assume so. I talked to his secretary and she said he, just a few minutes ago, said he won't be here."
TISHA THOMPSON: "We've been asking for six months. Your statement to us was our questions are questions. We need answers for the taxpayers."
ALAN ETTER: "There are questions in my mind as well. I wish I could give you the answers to those questions. I don't have the answers to those questions."
At that moment, in walked Joseph Askew, the Chairman of UDC’s Board of Trustees and Sessom’s boss.
TISHA THOMPSON: "Does it concern you that he won't answer questions about travel expenses?"
JOSEPH ASKEW: "If he is not responding directly to the press then that's a decision he has to make and it’s a decision he probably believes is in the best interest of the institution."
TISHA THOMPSON: "But its tax payer dollars."
JOSEPH ASKEW: "Exactly. And everything we do we have here are associated with tax payer dollars. We take every expense here at the University, including president travel, very, very importantly."
TISHA THOMPSON: "Will you be talking to him about this?"
JOSEPH ASKEW: "We're in the process of getting the explanations associated with his travel and if any event is deemed that its appropriate business travel, the Board will make a decision."
Emailed Responses to FOX 5 from UDC Spokesperson Alan Etter:
November 23, 2010
Well, with respect to Egypt, Dr. Sessoms nobody spent money because they all stayed in the MAM guest house. The other questions are still questions.
January 04, 2011
From the university’s perspective, every receipt, bill or voucher that exists on the issues you’ve raised has been submitted to you. In instances where there is no receipt or request for reimbursement – or any other explanation – reimbursement was either not requested, or the documentation does not exist for reasons I cannot explain at this time.
The president travels frequently for purposes of engaging the global academic community and promoting the university. This is a core function of a university president. He does so with explicit intent of advancing the university’s mission.
January 4, 2011
We’ve submitted everything that exists on the questions you’ve asked about. Dr. Sessoms has told me, as I think I indicated earlier, that he would decline an interview. I’d be happy, however, to revisit that this morning to see if anything has changed.
February 16, 2011
The president is required to live in the residence, which is owned by the university. The university does cover insurance, utilities and maintenance for the home, as was established by the board of trustees in the 80s. The president covers his own phone bill, but other than that, it is considered just like any other university facility. He uses it not only as his residence, but he also hosts university events and receptions there.
It is common for universities to provide a vehicle or a vehicle allowance for transportation for a president. Dr. Sessoms’ employment agreement provided in part that the university would meet the president’s transportation needs by providing a car allowance (subject to income tax) of $60,000 for the purchase and maintenance of a vehicle. Dr. Sessoms used his one-time taxable car allowance payment towards the purchase of the navigator, which is titled in his name and has private tags – it is his personal vehicle. He uses it for his business transportation in the District as well as his personal use.
The university does not provide a vehicle or transportation allowance for his wife.
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