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The director of a University of Washington program that helps high-poverty students go to college used her position to secure special privileges for herself and her family — including a hotel’s presidential suite — when traveling on business, according to state Auditor Troy Kelley.

a report, Kelley said the director of the GEAR UP program, Loueta Johnson, required staffers to attend out-of-town dinners they considered extravagant,
spent hundreds of dollars on car rentals and taxis, and failed to follow university, state and federal travel regulations in a number of instances.

Witnesses interviewed by investigators from the state Auditor’s Office said Johnson “was in travel status a great deal of the time. Witnesses overwhelmingly stated that instead of extensive travel, the money could have been spent on the intended use — the students.”

University spokesman Norm Arkans said the UW plans to follow up by gathering more specific information about each one of Johnson’s trips to see if the expenses were justified. “If there were inappropriate reimbursements, we’re going to get the money back,” he said.

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Arkans said he didn’t know how long the investigation would take, but that it was a high priority. In the meantime, Johnson remains on the job, he said.

Johnson could not be reached for comment Monday.

The state audit report on Johnson’s travels, which covered 2011 and 2012, did not provide a sum of how much money Johnson might have spent beyond the amount allowed under state travel rules, but many of the charges were in excess of the rules by hundreds of dollars.

Among the issues raised in the report:

• Johnson negotiated with hotels for upgrades, finding out how many rooms would need to be filled and for how many nights to receive an upgrade to a suite. The report said Johnson would then invite people who did not need to attend the meeting, such as support staff and summer interns, in order to receive an upgrade. On one occasion, she secured a hotel’s presidential suite for herself.

• During national conferences, Johnson required staffers to attend “extravagant” dinners that exceeded the allowed amount by at least $10 per person. In addition, Johnson would sometimes list people as having been at the dinner who did not attend.

• On one trip to Las Vegas, Johnson rented a car for $357 and drove it 26 miles. During a second trip, she rented a car for $233 the day before the conference began and drove it 144 miles. The car was returned to the rental agency after records showed she was already on a flight for Seattle. Johnson “was unable to clearly explain how the rental vehicle was checked in after her flight took off,” the auditor’s report said.

• Johnson chose to fly when she made trips from her home in Yakima to meetings in Seattle, Olympia and Tacoma between October 2011 and September 2012. The auditor’s report said it would have been cheaper for her to drive.

• When traveling, Johnson frequently arrived the day before an event and remained in town until the day after the event, according to the report.

A second, unrelated auditor’s report, also released Monday, found at least $74,000 in falsified expenses, fake receipts and fake expense reports in a UW program on global health that operates in Africa.

That investigation was initiated by UW internal auditor Richard Cordova, and involved the International Training and Education Center for Health (I-TECH), a program in the UW’s Department of Global Health.

The UW found that two finance assistants in Tanzania recorded falsified expenses and inserted fake receipts to misappropriate funds. I-TECH recovered the money, but the university decided not to pursue legal action. The two finance assistants were fired, Arkans said.

At I-TECH Namibia, a financial accountant recorded fake vendor expenses so she could wire payments to herself and family members. That case has been referred to the Namibian court system, and a trial is under way. The accountant was also fired.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or On Twitter @katherinelong.

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