Edgar H. “Ted” Turkle III ran the state research foundation at Buffalo State College with a sense of entitlement, state auditors say.
As operations manager, Turkle charged the foundation for $130,887 in nonbusiness-related expenses, including a birthday party for his wife and $22,000 for Buffalo Sabres season tickets.
Turkle, 70, also accompanied faculty on an unusually high number of overseas trips, sometimes bringing along family members, according to an audit by the State Comptroller’s Office released Monday.
Turkle has since been fired, but in light of those findings – and numerous other abuses involving the State University of New York’s Research Foundation – State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli announced he is launching yet another investigation to probe deeper into how state research dollars are being used.
“For too long, SUNY Research Foundation employees took advantage of lax oversight to cheat taxpayers, skirt state laws and violate the foundation’s own policies,” DiNapoli said.
The Buffalo News reported details of the comptroller’s audit last week after obtaining a draft copy, but DiNapoli formally released his findings Monday.
The Research Foundation was cited for similar abuses in a 2005 audit, but the new report found that the culture hadn’t changed.
“The Research Foundation needs to vastly improve its internal controls, budgetary oversight and ensure compliance with all relevant laws and policies,” DiNapoli said. “The foundation needs to recover all misspent funds immediately and fundamentally change how it operates.”
The Research Foundation, based in Albany, is a nonprofit arm of the State University of New York system that administers nearly $1 billion in government grants for research at the state’s colleges and universities, a portion of which is kept for overhead and discretionary funding.
The foundation has centers on SUNY campuses, including one at Buffalo State, where auditors examined operations between November 2007 and November 2011.
Besides the birthday party and Sabres tickets, the audit found that Turkle used his foundation credit card to charge other personal items, such as an Apple laptop, iPad, iPhones, Godiva chocolates and groceries.
Turkle also traveled to foreign countries – mostly in Asia – during 29 out of the 48 months that were audited, racking up more than $125,000 in expenses for travel, as well as high-end dining and hotels, the comptroller’s report found.
Vouchers for the trips did not include itineraries or agendas, but only short descriptions about the purpose of the travel.
In one case, the audit points out, Turkle traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to attend a conference but still charged the Research Foundation for expenses after the conference while spending four days in Bangkok.
While it’s not unusual that senior officials on occasion will travel overseas for academic purposes, auditors thought Turkle’s travel was excessive.
“Generally, it’s one or two trips a year or over the course of a few years, certainly not the extent that we’ve seen with Mr. Turkle,” said Mark Johnson, a spokesman for the Comptroller’s Office.
The Comptroller’s Office placed some of the blame on Buffalo State, where Turkle briefly served as vice president for research administration and economic development before he was fired in February.
“Certainly, with the provost approving some of this travel, there is a degree of responsibility on the part of the college, as well,” Johnson said.
Moreover, auditors had serious questions about why Turkle was compensated an additional $50,000 above his annual base salary of $148,815. While Research Foundation policy allows extra compensation for additional work, auditors were not sure why Buffalo State Provost Dennis Ponton approved a retroactive lump-sum payment of $14,758 for Turkle in 2010 and an additional $1,144 in Turkle’s biweekly paychecks.
Turkle’s bump in pay came when Ponton was serving as the interim president of the college and he elevated Turkle’s position at the campus Research Foundation office from director to operations manager, Buffalo State officials said Monday.
“With what we know today, I’m certain a different decision would have been made,” Buffalo State President Aaron Podolefsky said. “I have full confidence in Provost Ponton and know this one recommendation is not a true reflection on the many great things he has accomplished and will continue to accomplish at Buffalo State.”
As for the extent of Turkle’s credit card charges and travel revealed by the audit, the college took immediate action to institute tighter controls and last winter appointed the college comptroller as operations manager of the Research Foundation’s office on campus, Podolefsky said.
Attempts by The Buffalo News to reach Turkle were unsuccessful. He has paid back $10,674 for his personal charges, but the case has been referred to the Albany County District Attorney’s Office. A spokeswoman for the DA’s office said it was an ongoing case and she would not comment.
The problems, however, extend beyond Buffalo State.
The audit found that the Research Foundation paid $913,500 to a law firm to conduct an investigation of the Binghamton University men’s basketball program and compensated the former general counsel and secretary $665,356 in pay and severance for less than a year of service.
The audit also took aim at SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher.
Her account was charged more than $27,000 for questionable items, such as $13,172 for beverages and $9,822 for fees and dues to a private club.
Zimpher on Monday said reforms are already under way and the Research Foundation is moving forward under the new leadership of President Timothy Killeen.
“Over the last two years, SUNY leadership has overseen the most comprehensive review in the history of the Research Foundation, and as a result it is a markedly improved organization,” Zimpher said in a prepared statement. “From the beginning, SUNY and [Research Foundation] leadership have viewed the audit as an opportunity to acknowledge past problems and pledged full cooperation. The comptroller’s findings are confirmation that change was necessary.”
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