It’s not often that Fort Lewis College President Dene Kay Thomas jets halfway across the world to visit alumni. So when Thomas traveled to the United Arab Emirates in February to visit Sheik Adel Aujan, an FLC alumnus and chairman of the Middle East’s largest independent beverage company, the news turned some heads, including that of a local resident.
The resident, who did not release her name on any public records, filed a complaint with the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission in April alleging that during Thomas’ trip to the Middle East, the president violated Article 29 of the Colorado Constitution, which forbids government employees from accepting gifts valued at more than $53.
The complaint argues that Thomas violated the gift ban by accepting a dinner and reception that Aujan held in Dubai in her honor “while not repaying (the Sheik) the fair cost of the honoraria, food, alcohol, space rental, entertainment and other expenses associated with the event.”
It also alleges that Thomas violated the college’s travel reporting requirements by claiming expense reimbursement for the cost of her husband’s ticket to the UAE, by claiming per diem on days when no official business was being conducted and by failing to prorate trip expenses according to college-related and personal business.
The complaint refers to multiple home videos filmed by Thomas’ husband, Gordon Thomas, that show the president sightseeing in Abu Dhabi, visiting a mall in the city, going on a desert tour to see camels and visiting an indoor skiing facility in Dubai. It also cites FLC’s travel policy, which says that the college shall not reimburse the cost of an employee’s spouse accompanying a college employee on a business trip.
Lark’s Wing, a limited liability corporation formed March 23, is the plaintiff listed on the complaint. The company was formed, owned and managed by a concerned taxpayer who does not want her name shared, said Matthew Campbell, the attorney representing Lark’s Wing. Campbell also is the registered agent of MCRD, the company that is the registered agent of Lark’s Wing. Campbell does not own, manage or control any portion of Lark’s Wing, he wrote in an email to the Herald.
As part of his research for his client, Campbell said he reviewed Thomas’ other travel expenditures and suggested they, too, should be scrutinized for unnecessary or excessive expenditures.
The ethics balance
The ethics commission cannot confirm whether it has received or will hear the complaint about Thomas’ activities in Dubai. Jane Feldman, the commission’s executive director, said the group has been so busy addressing a complaint regarding Secretary of State Scott Gessler that it has not addressed any other requests in its May meetings.
Feldman said past cases addressed by the commission indicate that if Thomas gave a speech at the dinner, which she did, she would be free to attend the event without offering repayment. Luis Toro, director of the nonprofit Colorado Ethics Watch, offered a similar opinion though he suggested Thomas should have approached the commission beforehand if the issue was a gray area.
Though invitations to the Dubai reception said the event was in honor of the president, college spokesman Mitch Davis clarified that the dinner was an alumni reception that was not held solely for the president.
In response to the complaint’s other components, Thomas said that while she did sightsee for parts of some days, she conducted official college business during every day of her trip. She claimed the college’s standard per diem rate of $186 because it was easier than saving receipts, even though the per diem reimbursement rate was less than what she spent on meals and other activities that involved official college business, Thomas said.
Thomas’ husband accompanied her on her trip because she heard from several sources that, because of Muslim customs, the Sheik might not meet with her if she was not accompanied by her spouse, she said. The college reimbursed the $1,137 for Gordon Thomas’ ticket citing the “security and protocol of UAE customs.”
John Wells, chairman of FLC’s Board of Trustees, also weighed in on the issue.
“President Dene Thomas went to the Middle East on a mission-critical trip for Fort Lewis College. My colleagues on the Board of Trustees knew of it and approved of it. We still do. As chair, I have personally reviewed the expense reports, found them appropriate and fully within the College’s fiscal policies,” Wells wrote in an email to the Herald.
The president’s travels
An investigation of all of Thomas’ travel expenses shows she has taken 48 trips costing more than $44,000 during her three years at the college. She has traveled across the United States and internationally to the UAE, Japan and Germany on college business that included attending conferences, meeting with foreign educators and visiting alumni.
When she stayed in hotels, the average room cost was $178, and her meal expenses on travel days averaged $50 per day.
Overall, Thomas has traveled more than her predecessor, Brad Bartel, who took 29 trips during his last three years as the college’s president. Bartel however, focused more on the college’s internal business and was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, which reduced his travel schedule.
Thomas’ busy travel schedule is encouraged and supported by the college’s leadership, including the board of trustees and the director of the FLC Foundation, the college’s nonprofit fundraising arm. Thomas’ annual review last year included the direction to “consider becoming more external in the next phase of her presidency.”
Accordingly, her responsibilities increasingly have focused on trips outside of Durango to promote FLC to a wider audience of legislators, other educators and prospective students while also fostering better and broader relationships with alumni in hopes that someday they will open up their pocketbooks to support their alma mater.
Her tasks are even more important as the college faces the frightening prospect that all state funding for higher education will vanish within the next decade, according to a University of Denver study. FLC has to prepare to operate as a quasi-private institution, and that includes a greater dependence on fundraising and endowments, Provost Barbara Morris said.
In the future, Thomas likely will take more trips like the one to Dubai. She and Margie Dean Gray, director of the FLC Foundation, are sifting through alumni records looking for other notable, influential, accomplished alumni like Aujan, the billionaire beverage company owner whom Thomas visited in Dubai.
The foundation expects to exceed the $2.2 million it raised last year thanks in part to Thomas’ efforts, Gray said.
“We’ve had presidents in the past who haven’t done much travel for the college. She’s never turned us down,” Gray said. “She meets as many people as she possibly can in hopes that they will say, ‘I want to be part of what’s going on,’ and then they give.”