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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Whistleblower Assails Audit Of Popular Prepaid Tuition Program

Michael Bennion
Michael Bennion is challenging the findings of an accountability audit into Washington's Guaranteed Education Tuition program.

A whistleblower who says he was terminated after questioning accounting practices at Washington’s popular prepaid tuition program known as GET is challenging the findings of an accountability audit into the program.

Michael Bennion, the program’s former associate director for fiscal planning, said the June 7 report from the Washington State Auditor’s office is flawed.

“They released a report that I think is riddled with errors,” Bennion said. “I think it’s irresponsible to the public and I think it’s insulting quite frankly to me and future whistleblowers.”

The audit concluded that the Guaranteed Education Tuition Program did not engage in gross mismanagement, despite Bennion’s allegations that it did. The audit also concluded that there was “no evidence” that the GET accounts of lawmakers and other “VIP” clients received “special consideration or priority in service.” The report, however, did find the GET program could take steps to be more transparent and efficient.

Last August, in an email to several state lawmakers, Bennion alleged that GET had charged “unnecessarily high administrative fees” since its inception in 1998 and failed to properly account for that money.

“The GET Program is not and has not been accountable or transparent with the public,” Bennion wrote.

At the time, GET had 97,000 active accounts but was closed to new customers. The program reopened last November.

While finding no evidence of mismanagement, the audit did find that GET has collected nearly $23 million in fees in excess of actual expenses. The audit suggested the program could more accurately calculate the cost of tuition credits and better account for its administrative fees.

In response to the audit finding, the Washington Student Achievement Council, which oversees the GET program, said the excess fees were $6.6 million after accounting for “non-penalty contribution refunds” made to customers over the years.

Bennion went public with his concerns last August after the auditor’s office rejected a whistleblower complaint he had filed. In rejecting the complaint, the auditor sent Bennion a letter saying he would still enjoy the benefits afforded to whistleblowers under state law. Ultimately, the auditor decided to conduct an accountability audit which had the support of the WSAC.

In response to Bennion’s criticism of the audit, a communications manager for the auditor’s office wrote, “At this time, we would only stress that the Auditor’s Office decided to address multiple sources’ questions and concerns about the GET program through an accountability audit, not a whistleblower investigation. We conducted that audit according to our professional standards.”

In a statement, the WSAC said it welcomed the results of the audit and would review the recommendations over the coming months.

Bennion recently filed a lawsuit against the WSAC alleging whistleblower retaliation and wrongful termination. Previously, WSAC said Bennion’s termination was “completely unrelated” to the concerns he raised, but did not elaborate.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."