CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia State University President Brian Hemphill sent an email to alumni, faculty, staff and other "supporters" in response to a story in last Sunday's Gazette-Mail detailing the unusual purchases made on his state-issued travel card.
The Gazette-Mail reported last Sunday that the state auditor's office had flagged Hemphill's travel account for "personal or non-travel" purchases like NFL tickets, alcohol, expensive dinners and excessive hotel fees for things like movie rentals and room service. The auditor's office also noted that college presidents are exempt from state law governing travel and purchasing policies.
WVSU officials told the Gazette-Mail the purchases were OK'd by school administration and were for "donor cultivation" purposes. State and Higher Education Policy Commission officials confirmed that because presidents are exempt, it is up to the president's own institution to define "official state business" even if using a West Virginia Travel Card.
Shortly after the story was published, Hemphill emailed a letter "to members of the State family" -- which did not include students -- titled "response to Gazette story" with an attached one-page document titled "narrative of charges."
In the email, Hemphill goes into detail about some of the purchases and says when he learned the auditor's office questioned his card use, he immediately contacted his finance staff to "thoroughly review" all applicable policies and procedures associated with the card.
"For someone to question my integrity and my character is extremely disappointing to me and my family...," Hemphill says in the letter. "With your support, we have positioned [WVSU] at the center of many conversations across the state and have become a spotlight in the press. With this increased visibility, we also have the responsibility to respond to any attempts to slow WVSU's momentum. Therefore we have displayed the highest level of transparency in responding to this unfounded policy and procedural violation."
The email was not sent to the Gazette-Mail, and Hemphill did not speak with a reporter directly, but gave a statement through WVSU spokeswoman Kimberly Osborne via email.
While Hemphill said he did nothing wrong and he "utilized the card much like a corporate credit card," the university plans to contact other higher education institutions in West Virginia "to understand what mechanisms presidents utilize for donor cultivation activities and other expenses and will implement any available best practices," according to the email.
Documents obtained by the Gazette-Mail from the auditor's office showed that thousands of dollars for those expenses that were flagged as "personal or non-travel" were reimbursed by the WVSU Foundation -- which administers the college's donations and supports student scholarships.