Florida State University President John Thrasher spends considerable time on the road conducting university business. In two years, he's charged the state a little over $14,000 on his travels.
Records obtained by the Democrat through a public records request show Thrasher’s travel card expenses come to $8,310. That amount is far less than the $81,500 that records show being charged to Florida A&M University President Elmira Mangum’s purchasing card over a two-year period.
“We would not want to mislead anyone that the T-card expenses are all of the president’s travel expenses; roughly double that amount is paid from other sources, averaging about $15,000 a year,” Browning Brooks, assistant vice president for university communications, said recently.
Thrasher’s travel card charges include airlines tickets, car rental, lodging and taxi services between Nov. 10, 2014, and Aug. 11, 2016. Thrasher was named president in November 2014. Airline costs are charged for meetings in Orlando, Washington, D.C., New York City, along with lodging for Board of Governors meetings in Florida. The travel card charges total $8,300.
In addition, records show Thrasher used chartered planes for travel to the Rose Bowl ($850); Seminole Tribe meetings near Hollywood, Fla. ($1,228); a trip to Sarasota for the Ringling Board combined with an Atlantic Coast Conference meeting ($2,550) and a Board of Governors meeting in Fort Myers ($1,500). Brooks said the chartered flights were paid directly to the vendors using purchase orders, not the travel card.
Those charters totaled $6,128, bringing the total to $14,600.
Three of Thrasher's commercial flights were reimbursed to the university, as was a charter flight to the Seminole Tribe meeting.
The travel card expenses for Thrasher represents about 10 percent of the figure records show charged to Mangum’s card.
What's more eye-raising is the contrast in spending between the chiefs of staff to the presidents.
Records obtained from FSU show Thrasher's chief of staff David Coburn charged $1,962.20 on his travel card. He also was reimbursed $1,468.89 in expenses. Mangum's chief of staff Jimmy Miller's purchase card charges totaled $156,071.
Coburn travels very little. He charged airfare for a Chamber of Commerce trip to Boulder, Coloroado, and conference registration fees to his travel card. He was reimbursed for lodging in Orlando and for mileage to attend meetings in Orlando and Ponte Vedra. His expenses totaled $3,431,09.
Miller's expenses included trips to New York, Washington, D.C., and throughout Florida, for himself, as well as his staff, guest speakers, trustee travel and trips for Mangum. Other expenses went for computer equipment and office and meeting supplies.
Before being named chief of staff last December, Miller served as vice president for communications and external relations.
Brooks said office supplies and other work-related items are purchased through other accounts for the university.
In August, the Democrat reported $81,500 in charges were made on Mangum’s purchasing card. Those reports covered the two-year period May 5, 2014 to July 19, 2016.
The examination of Mangum's travel expenses came as she was asking university departments to make more than $10 million in cuts and members of the Board of Trustees had raised questions in her evaluation about the benefit to the university of her frequent travel. Since then, trustees have voted against extending her contract beyond April 2017. And a trustee committee has proposed a BOT vote on a plan Wednesday which Mangum will step down on Sept. 15 and be placed on administrative leave until her contract expires next April.
Expanding FAMU's reach
The bulk of those entries was for air travel, hotels, ground transportation and other expenses. Some of Mangum's travel expenses also were posted on purchasing cards issued to Miller. Expenses related to Mangum's travel also were included on purchase cards by three FAMU Police Department employees.
Elise Durham, assistant vice president in the Office of Communications, defended the expenses. She said Mangum’s travel is "not out of the ordinary" for a State University System president.
"The president is always cultivating for the university and part of that expectation is she expand the reach for Florida A&M outside of Florida," Durham told the Democrat.
Brooks said Thrasher travels an average of twice monthly to meetings associated with the university. That includes fundraisers, Atlantic Coast Conference meetings, Florida Board of Governors, Ringling Museum board meetings (twice a year) in Sarasota, and an annual trip to the Seminole Tribe reservation.
The university’s annual Seminoles in New York trip, when the university and national alumni association host several events, is geared toward fundraising and promoting FSU’s programs. This year’s trip included a performance by the Seminole Trombone Quartet in Carnegie Hall.
Thrasher usually travels alone on university business. While he has a car allowance, he prefers to drive his own car, FSU officials say.
This is in contrast with Mangum who often is driven or accompanied by a FAMU police officer, even during trips within the city.
“That happens to be that officer’s detail for that day,” Durham said, adding that a police officer doesn’t always accompany the president.
Brooks said Thrasher’s leadership team will travel with him to certain meetings, such as the Board of Governors, when the university is making a presentation. The members travel together to save on costs since those meetings are in-state.
“The T-card numbers are the total he charged in travel expenses that were paid with E&G funds (or state money),” Brooks said. “We estimate he spent roughly double that amount on travel that was paid with FSU Foundation funds, or about $15,000 a year.”
Brooks said some of Thrasher’s expenses are picked up by the FSU Foundation, its alumni or through other sources.
Durham said each university in the State University System covers travel in its own way. For instance, she said, UCF President John Hitt travels by private jet.
“Our trustees said to me that the amount of money spent over a two-year period is nothing,” she said of Mangum’s travel designed to build relationships and raise money.
“FSU may have alumni who can foot the bill; lovely for them,” she said. “We’d love to have that.”
Durham said she is unsure if the FAMU Foundation picks up any costs for Mangum’s travel. The president also seeks to have her expenses paid by out-of-town organizations that have invited her to speak.
About Miller's travel card expenses, FAMU’s Durham explained his previous role as vice president of communications and external relations. His travel was in support of the president and for federal and state legislative outreach, she said.
“He also had a role, for a period of time, in engaging with alumni and other university advancement activities,” she said.
“All of the travel expense that you see was not necessarily for him,” Durham added. “He often paid for other university business and travel for members of the board as well as the communications and external relations team.“
Contact senior reporter Byron Dobson at email@example.com or on Twitter @byrondobson.
What we found:
Last month, the Tallahassee Democrat published a story on the travel expenses charged to FAMU President Elmira Mangum’s purchase card. The records, obtained through a public records request, show more than $80,000 in charges, mostly airline, hotel and other travel-related expenses, incurred by the president from May 2014 to July 2016.
The records indicate her travel was associated with university business, including Board of Governor's meetings, training seminars, board meetings, FAMU football games, alumni association meetings across the country and other commitments.
The Democrat also reported on the travel expenses charged on the purchase card of Mangum’s Chief of Staff Jimmy Miller, other members of Mangum’s leadership team and three employees of the FAMU Police Department who have served as drivers/security for the president.
To draw a comparison, the Democrat also requested travel expenses for FSU President John Thrasher, Chief of Staff David Coburn and Provost Sally McRorie.