COLUMBUS - College professors and administrators may have settled for sandwiches and chips while working on committees for the Ohio Board of Regents, but records show that when the regents themselves ate out in Columbus, some dined on filet mignon, prime rib, and grilled salmon.
"So many Ohioans are having trouble sending their children to college," said Catherine Turcer of government watchdog Ohio Citizen Action. "When the cost of a meal would pay for a class, it's painful. No one begrudges them a bagel and a cup of coffee, but I don't think eating filet mignon is a good decision when they're there to fund colleges."
In the vast majority of cases, the regents ate cold sandwiches, soups, and chips with other participants of committees and board meetings. But a few receipts at such upscale Columbus restaurants as Lindey's, Handke's Cuisine, Braddock's Grandview, and RJ Snappers prompted Gov. Ted Strickland earlier this week to conduct a review of such spending by all state agencies.
After learning that $3.9 million had been spent during the last 19 months statewide, he issued an order freezing state government spending on nearly all food purchases related to meetings, conferences, and seminars until April 5 so that a standard policy could be developed.
The board is far from the biggest spender on meals in terms of state agencies at about $141,000, according to state figures. That honor belongs to the Departments of Education, Health, and Transportation, each of which spent more than $325,000 on food.
But the regents have stood out because their spending triggered the freeze and because the board and Mr. Strickland are locked in a dispute over control of the higher education chancellor.
"The regents serve without compensation, but they are reimbursed for necessary benefits like lodging, travel, and meals," said Vice Chancellor Richard Petrick. "State workers when traveling are entitled to $40 per diems. These meal costs are in that range or lower than that. If the regents went out and paid for the same meals themselves, they could seek reimbursement, and it would be within the law."
A cursory review of office meal receipts and invoices during the last two years showed that the vast majority of meals were for boxed lunches eaten by regents, staff members, professors, college administrators, trustees, and volunteers working on projects involving such complicated issues as transferability of college credits.
But a handful of receipts for board dinners stand out. Among them:
•In September, 2005, a two-day board retreat at the Cherry Valley Lodge in Newark, which cost taxpayers $3,055 in meals for regents and key staff. The meals included a working dinner and then breakfast and lunch the next day. Regents spokesman Jamie Abel said the retreat was a rare event that involved long-term planning.
•On June 15, 2005, 20 regents and staff members dined on filet mignon, roasted chicken, stuffed grouper, raspberry torte, and creme brulee for a of $703, including a $72 meeting set-up fee. The dinner meeting, advertised as a public meeting the night before the board's regular meeting, was in a private room at RJ Snappers in the trendy Short North neighborhood of Columbus.
•On Oct. 20, 2005, taxpayers paid $1,041 for the dinners of 18 people, 11 of whom had filet that accounted for $324 of the bill, at upscale Handke's Cuisine in the city's Brewery District. Board records show eight regents were present and the rest were staff members.
•On Nov. 9, 2005, at another dinner board meeting held at the Hilton Cleveland East at Beechwood, 15 of 23 people had herb crusted prime rib while others ate baked orange roughy and herbed chicken sautee. The bill: $841.
•On Dec. 7, 2005, a dinner meeting on the transferability of college credits held at the Columbus Renaissance Hotel came up with a food bill of $680. Half of the 16 people ate roast prime rib and the other, half stuffed salmon.
•On May 17, 2005, carryout from Braddock's Grandview restaurant, which included oysters Rockefeller, shrimp, and grilled calamari, came to $664 for 18 people. It was also for the board's working dinner.
•On April 20, 2005, a board meeting at Lindey's cost taxpayers $1,01l with meals that included salmon, chicken breast, calamari, and a dessert buffet. The price included a $161 meeting set-up charge.
The board has disputed the total spending figure of $141,000 over 19 months released by the governor's office, noting that some of the spending was recouped by registration fees from participants at conferences.
Others, it said, were paid with federal funds, including boxed lunches for congressional aides near the U.S. Capitol who were updated on a federally funded project.
"There are scholarship programs for poor kids from Cleveland and buildings at OSU and OSU-Newark because of these people, who give tens of millions of their dollars," Mr. Petrick said. "They don't brag about what they do. They donate hundreds of hours at meetings you don't hear about.
"This is a business decision," Mr. Petrick said. "We get the most productivity from these people who travel three or six hours in a day."
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