State audit: Questionable expenses by program director

YAKIMA COUNTY, Wash. -- Expensive meals, unnecessary flights and a hotel stay in a presidential suite. Those are some of the things the state auditor said wasted your taxpayer money. Money spent by a woman who works in the Lower Valley to help children in poverty get an education.

A state audit found an education director based in the Yakima Valley used her position to secure special privileges. Specifically, that Loueta Johnson broke the rules for her business trips.

Johnson is the director of the GEAR UP program in Toppenish that helps low-income students go to college. The program is run by the University of Washington.

"Based on the information that the state auditor developed, we need to go in and do a thorough review of all of the travel transactions that are in question," said University of Washington Spokesperson Norm Arkans.

Johnson's activity is now the subject of an internal investigation by the University of Washington. It's not clear how long that will take, but the university said it's been given a high priority.

The audit highlighted a few questionable expenses from October 2011 to September 2012. It shows Johnson spent more money to fly regularly to Seattle from Yakima for meetings instead of driving.

She hosted two retreats on the West Side that auditors considered wasteful. All but one of the employees there made the trip from the Yakima Valley, indicating it made more sense to keep the conferences local.

She spent more than $1,600 on dinner in Washington, D.C. Her documents indicated 39 people attended. But, investigators determined at least 10 of those named weren't there.

On a trip to Las Vegas, the audit shows she spent a lot of money on taxis and renting cars. That's despite doing most of her business at her hotel.

"Without a conclusion at this doing of whether things were done rightly or not, we're not in a position to take the disciplinary action," said Norm.

Right now, Loueta Johnson remains on the job.

To get all sides, KIMA reached out directly to Loueta Johnson. She responded with an e-mail that referred us to the University of Washington.

The university said everyone on the GEAR UP staff in the Yakima Valley, including Johnson, will be required to have more training on travel expense policies.