SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Department of Transportation spent more than $20,000 to cover questionable hotel and meal costs for employees attending conferences, according to a new report issued by the state auditor.

The agency did not dispute the findings in the four-page report issued on May 8, targeting how the agency reimburses employees for travel expenses at several conferences last year.

The biggest issue surrounded travel to conferences last year by employees who lived less that 50 miles away and did not qualify under state regulations for reimbursement.

According to the report, UDOT paid nearly $5,400 for hotel rooms for 17 employees who should have commuted from home to the conferences. More than $1,900 in meals was also covered for nine employees who did not qualify for overnight stays.

Several employees who lived within the mileage limit but had duties that allowed them to be reimbursed for rooms and meals were not properly documented, the report found, while others charged UDOT for a complimentary hotel breakfast.

There were also issues surrounding more than $3,600 spent to provide refreshments during conference breaks, including a double payment that was later refunded by the hotel. UDOT was charged another $1,500 for 17 room-nights for employees who did not cancel their reservations.

The report stated UDOT "did not comply with all state policies and procedures related to travel and did not perform a careful review and approval" of expenses, calling the noted expenditures inappropriate or unnecessary.

Utah Democrats used the audit to once again draw attention to management issues surrounding UDOT, including a $13 million payout to a losing bidder on the massive I-15 contract and the wrongful termination of an employee.

State Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said "things do not get better" at the agency and accused UDOT of having "arrogantly wasted" taxpayer dollars. "What's next," Dabakis asked.

In a letter accompanying the audit, state Auditor Auston Johnson said that while the report "focuses on exceptions, weaknesses, and problems" that "should not be understood to mean there are not also various strengths and accomplishments."

The response from UDOT included in the audit stated the agency's comptroller will pre-approve hotel and meals for employees attending future in-state conferences and offer additional training about the travel policy. 

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