Alcohol prevention group scrutinized in state audit

LINCOLN — Nebraska’s state auditor says Project Extra Mile made a number of unallowable and unreasonable expenses with grant monies in 2015-16, including a $4,600 recognition dinner that was “more of an entertainment-based event than a technical meeting” and too many meals from Jason’s Deli for training events.

But interim director Diane Riibe called the report, issued Wednesday by State Auditor Charlie Janssen, politically motivated, nitpicky and factually inaccurate in places.

“Nowhere is there fraud. Nowhere is there mismanagement. Nowhere is there malfeasance,” said Riibe, who stepped in at the alcohol prevention group after former director Nicole Carritt resigned in May. “So you have to ask, ‘Why?’ ”

Riibe said she suspected that it could have to do with the group’s efforts to curb underage drinking through legislation and enforcement, and its work on issues such as beer sales in Whiteclay, which is within walking distance of the legally dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The auditor launched the review after his office heard substantiated concerns about Project Extra Mile’s spending of federal dollars, said Mary Avery, the office’s special audits and finance manager. The group was treated the same as others, she said.

“We started looking at it, and we had some questionable items,” she said.

The group receives the majority of its funding through grants. About two-thirds is allocated through the Nebraska Highway Safety Office and one-third from a Region 6 Behavioral Healthcare grant, Riibe said.

The group received $405,000 in income between October 2014 and September 2015, according to its most recent filings.

The report said the alcohol prevention group violated federal regulations that prohibit lobbying with grant funds when it held educational meetings with senators, attended Liquor Control Commission meetings and tweeted about alcohol-related legislation that it opposed.

Riibe argued that meeting with senators and going to public meetings are not considered lobbying under federal rules. And while the advocacy group engages in lobbying, it doesn’t do so with grant dollars, she said.

She noted that former director Carritt tweeted opposing views about Legislative Bill 1105, which dealt with several alcohol issues, and tweeted on her personal time — on vacation days and after hours, yet the Auditor’s Office declined to take that information into account.

Avery said the report included that information because it found that Project Extra Mile used Highway Safety grant money to fund vacation time when not all employees are funded solely by the grant.

The audit also took issue with the group’s $4,600 recognition dinner and criticized roughly $3,300 spent in conference and travel expenses for four non-employees. The audit also took note of nearly $700 in charges for flight changes and nearly $116 in travel expenses for employees commuting from home, among other expenses.

Riibe said the annual dinner featured a leading expert on policy and is a common event among nonprofits.

She called the expenses for four non-employees — including Frank LaMere, a Native American activist from South Sioux City, Nebraska, and Tom Mumgaard, a retired City of Omaha attorney — to attend and speak at an Arlington, Virginia, alcohol policy conference “phenomenally typical” for nonprofits.

Riibe said federal regulations don’t bar the group from reporting mileage for employees traveling from home, and she pointed out that most of those instances happened on weekends.

Riibe criticized auditors for noting that Project Extra Mile paid $230 for 29 sandwich meals for a youth training event that only 21 attended, and paid $255 for 30 meals for a law enforcement training event that only 19 people attended.

“Somehow we got dinged for having too many sandwiches,” she said.

Riibe said she appreciated that the audit gave her group the opportunity to review its practices and procedures, and she said some changes and reimbursements have been made based on the findings. She noted that Carritt’s departure had nothing to do with the audit.

Avery said the office did remove some items from the report that were supported by documentation provided by Project Extra Mile.