ATLANTA — An investigation by Channel 2 Action News found that the Georgia Tech Research Institute spent more than one million tax dollars over the past two years on entertainment and meals for employees and their families.
Channel 2 Investigative Reporter Richard Belcher says after months of defending what it calls "morale spending," the university is changing its tone, promising to review the spending "to avoid even the perception of inappropriate use."
GTRI is a widely respected facility that does world-class research, much of its highly classified for the defense department.
Largely off the radar is that it spends $500,000 annually to boost employee morale, and all of it is tax money.
The director of GTRI tried to get away from our cameras when we began to ask him about the money.
“Hey, this is off record, off-camera. I'm not talking to you. Away. Away,” Dr. Andrew Gerber told Belcher and his photographer.
The missile defense expert makes more than $400,000 annually in his position.
After a tip from a whistleblower, we used the state open records law to get the details of the spending on employee morale events, that included trips to Topgolf, Six Flags, the Aquarium and much more.
“Does your television station have any events for its employees?” Gerber asked Belcher.
“Well, we’re not supported by tax money. You are,” Belcher responded.
Records show in 2016 and 2017, a total of nearly $1.1 million in your tax dollars was spent on these employee events.
That included $73,000 for employees and their families to go to the Georgia Aquarium, $109,000 for a staff picnic at Six Flags, $26,000 at a Braves game, nearly $12,000 racing go-karts and playing laser tag at Andretti’s and $7,300 at Topgolf, including more than $1,000 in cocktails, beer and wine.
“It’s the fiscal wreck of Georgia Tech,” said David Williams, with the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.
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“When an aircraft carrier goes a billion dollars over budget, that's pretty hard to distinguish or put into relevant context. When a given entity spends thousands of dollars on sporting tickets, well, then it hits close to home,” said Pete Sepp, the president of the National Taxpayers Union.
In an email, Georgia Tech initially defended using the money for business development, research support, recruitment and morale.
“The biggest problem here is that the university and the research institute don't think there's anything wrong, and that's the first thing that needs to be addressed. They need to realize this is an inappropriate expenditure of funds,” Williams said.
That initial statement never acknowledged that it's all federal tax money, but pointedly notes there is no state money involved.
“The fact of the matter is, it doesn't matter whether it's state money. It's taxpayer money,” said Leslie Paige, Vice President of Citizens Against Government Waste.
Gerber didn't make the distinction between state and federal tax money, and he acknowledges his employees are adequately compensated.
“So, any thoughts about rethinking it?” Belcher asked Gerber.
“We have actually rethought it. We're still going to invest a small amount, or an adequate amount, on morale for our employees,” Gerber said.
“You don't think you could come up with the money privately? It has to be tax money?” Belcher asked.
“That's all. Thanks,” Gerber said.
“If this information had to be posted online in a very accessible way, there's no way that they would be spending this kind of money on this kind of frivolous, wasteful stuff,” Paige said.
“The only way to stop these expenditures is through oversight but also public shaming and embarrassment,” Williams said.
Gerber was irritated that Belcher confronted him, but neither he nor Georgia Tech seemed to be embarrassed.
The university said all the morale spending is approved in advance by the research institute's director of ethics. We asked to interview that person, but Georgia Tech did not provide anyone on camera.
The university did send Belcher a statement on Monday morning, saying it is now reviewing the spending.
“Going forward all GTRI expenditures will be subject to multi-level review in advance including new reporting and monitoring through Georgia Tech finance and accounting, ethics and compliance offices. Audits will be conducted as to the appropriateness of all expenditures associated with the support of sponsored research. Georgia Tech will conduct the audits and more closely scrutinize the use of federally approved expenses to ensure that such expenses are reasonable, adhere to the policies of the sponsoring organizations, and align with Board of Regents and University System of Georgia policies.
“Meanwhile, Georgia Tech has initiated a review of GTRI ‘morale fund’ expenditures. With the growing cost of the events, the categories of acceptable use and activities appropriate for use of these funds warrant further review to avoid even the perception of inappropriate use in the future.”
Cox Media Group