A former UC Davis nutrition department employee was sentenced to 12 months in prison for stealing $160,000 of federal program funds for personal use over the course of six years.
Beverly Benford, 67, pleaded guilty in June to one count of theft of government property. Benford was ordered last week by U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton to surrender herself to authorities on Feb. 17 for a one-year prison sentence and to pay $128, 681 in restitution.
Benford was an employee of the university from 1991 to 2006 in the Food Stamp Nutrition Education Program, which educates food stamp recipients on food safety and healthy eating. After a whistleblower came forward in August 2006 alleging her misconduct, a subsequent UC Davis investigation found that U.S. Department of Agriculture funds were involved and turned the matter over to a federal grand jury, which indicted Benford in March 2007.
“Our expectation is that all of our employees do what is right and obey the law,” said Assistant Executive Vice Chancellor Robert Loessberg-Zahl. “When it became apparent that this employee hadn’t, we cooperated fully.“
Federal prosecutors alleged that Benford – the sole administrator of FSNEP funds – made fraudulent purchases and travel expense claims over the period of at least six years amounting to $160,000. Benford was ordered to pay restitution of the total amount minus the value of items recovered by the university, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Lapham.
Following the incident, UC Davis‘ Internal Audit Services conducted an investigation and generated a report so the department could take corrective action.
“One of the findings of the investigation was that the authority that was given to Benford to control all aspects of the purchasing process was a bad practice,” Loessberg-Zahl said. “Steps to correct it have been taken.“
Loessberg-Zahl said it is uncommon for funds to be overseen by just a single administrator and Internal Audit Services will be looking at similar programs to determine if the correct financial controls are in place.
The FSNEP has since been moved from the Department of Nutrition to the Office of the Dean of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences to allow for direct oversight at the highest administrative level, Loessberg-Zahl said.
“FSNEP funds were used to hire new staff positions to improve financial oversight of the program,” he said. “We’ve recently hired a new program director who has significant experience in managing these types of programs.“
The FSNEP operates adult and youth programs for food stamp recipients on a voluntary basis about how to eat and live healthy on a tight budget. The program aims to increase the self-sufficiency of food stamp recipients and decrease reliance on emergency food resources, according to its website.
“The FSNEP program is an outstanding example of putting the academic resources of the university to work for the public good,” Loessberg-Zahl said. “It is really unfortunate that the actions of Ms. Benford and shortcomings in financial oversight cast a shadow on the program.
“With Ms. Benford’s sentencing and the university’s steps to improve financial oversight of the program, I believe that program is once again on sound administrative footing and fully able to carry out the important work of providing nutrition education to Food Stamp recipients,“ he said.
ALYSOUN BONDE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org