LINCOLN — A former Nebraska Department of Education employee used a work credit card to pay for personal hotel stays, Uber rides, an Amazon Prime membership and a pair of Boston Duck Tour tickets.
A newly released state audit said the credit card purchases were among more than $44,000 worth of allegedly fraudulent transactions made by the employee, Nicole Coffey, between Jan. 1, 2016, and April 12, 2018.
The total includes more than $9,000 of travel expenses involved in what the audit labeled an apparent “double-dipping fraud scheme.”
The audit said Coffey paid for the travel with the work credit card, then claimed the costs on her personal expense account. That way she was able to get paid by the department for expenses she never personally incurred. Some of the expenses involved were for personal trips, the audit said.
As laid out in the audit, Coffey began working for the Education Department in 2004. Within two years, the department named her the state adviser for DECA, a nonprofit student marketing organization that is one of the state-authorized career education student groups.
In that role, she had use of a DECA credit card.
Department officials began raising questions about Coffey’s reimbursement requests on March 30, 2018. She could not provide reasonable explanations, which prompted further digging by the department. She resigned on May 8, 2018, rather than contest their allegations of misconduct.
The matter was then turned over to the Nebraska State Patrol for investigation. The patrol enlisted help from State Auditor Charlie Janssen’s office in sorting out the financial aspects of the case.
The audit found 540 questionable transactions on the DECA credit card, with a total value of $33,617.
Education officials questioned some transactions, which were made on days that Coffey was off work or otherwise occupied. Auditor staff questioned others based in part on where the purchases were made. The audit said purchases at American Eagle, Vera Bradley, Dillard’s and Men’s Wearhouse did not appear to be for a reasonable DECA purpose.
Included in the total were 13 cash advance transactions, which were made in violation of the Education Department’s memorandum of understanding with the career education organizations.
In two cases, Coffey got cash advances that exactly matched the amount she deposited into her personal checking account the same day, the audit said. On June 9, 2016, for example, she got a $500 advance using the DECA card. The same day, she put $500 into her personal account, bringing the balance up to $503.35.
The audit said Coffey confirmed that some charges were made for personal travel. Coffey reimbursed DECA for one trip to New York City.
In a written statement Coffey gave the State Patrol, she said she charged some of the hotel and airfare to the DECA card accidentally. She said she had been lax in managing the card and in keeping her personal and professional expenses separate.
But she also said her intent was always to serve DECA, such as by buying food for volunteers or thank-you gifts for officers in the organization.
“I feel absolutely terrible about this whole situation and am eager to fix my mistakes,” she said. “I mean to say I served and lived DECA as if it was my company and thought I was encouraging involvement and fostering growth by taking care of our volunteers and officers.”
The audit made recommendations for education officials to increase scrutiny of expense reimbursement requests and for DECA’s board to beef up its review of financial transactions.
In a response included in the audit, state education officials said they had acted promptly in starting disciplinary proceedings against Coffey after discovering her apparent wrongdoing. They also said they had been proactive in referring the matter to the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office.