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Meg Backus, center, and Nate Hill listen as assistant city attorney Malueg Valerie speaks to the library board during a special meeting on Sept. 4.
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Library director Corinne Hill attends a Chattanooga Public Library board meeting Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014, in Chattanooga.
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Library Staffer Trips

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List of trips taken by Chattanooga Public Library top staffers.

Before City Auditor Stan Sewell cracked open the travel books at the Chattanooga Public Library, no one appeared to be scrutinizing Executive Director Corinne Hill and her employees' trips across the country and the world -- prompting multiple complaints of possible fraud from library employees.

A look at their travels for the last two fiscal years shows that Hill and her two top staffers -- Assistant Director Nate Hill and former systems administrator Meg Backus -- went on at least 25 trips to places such as Seattle, Las Vegas, Miami, Singapore and Denmark for professional development conferences, running a tab of nearly $40,000 to taxpayers.

That's more than double the amount of money the library budgets for travel for all employees -- $8,828 per year, or $17,656 over two years.

Corinne Hill disputed the figures the city's Finance Department gave to the Times Free Press, but ultimately produced a spreadsheet with bottom-line numbers that didn't vary significantly and offered no documentation.

She said of the $23,000 for her trips alone, only $14,000 came from the library's general budget, since she was hired in 2012 and the rest came from an outside endowment fund. She also said that the library's Francis Cole Fund reimbursed the city for an $8,000 trip to Singapore, and records show the same fund reimbursed the city $5,000 for three plane tickets to Denmark.

Even subtracting those amounts, the remaining total is well above the allowable travel amount. Plus, employees didn't have to follow the city's strict policies for documenting travel, obtaining permission for travel or taking vacation time off, which Sewell found led to mismanagement and abuse.

Corinne Hill said those trips were necessary to study how to turn around a failing library that was blasted in a 2009 consultant's report that found the library irrelevant and its leaders visionless. The city-hired consultant also found old collections of untouched books and poor public access to the Internet.

"What we're doing is changing an industry that has been the same for the last 30 years," Corinne Hill said. "We're helping it to survive."

Last week, the board that oversees the library -- still stung by the recent findings in Sewell's audit -- discussed how to proceed after Sewell's discovery that employees weren't required to use the city's travel or vacation policies. Instead they marked their time off in a little black book, and then Hill approved their travel.

The city's Finance Department said because the library hadn't adopted the city's policies, officials aren't required to check whether library employees are using government rates for hotels and meals when they travel or whether the trips meet the city's eight-page travel reimbursement guidelines.

"They get to determine their travel policies. We write all their checks, but they have no bank account or accounting department," said Daisy Madison, the city's finance officer.

Without the checks and balances, Sewell found that both Corinne Hill and Nate Hill had received double reimbursement on multiple trips and Backus admitted she had lied on her time card and all three took a week or more of unaccounted vacation time. Backus has since resigned and Nate Hill was suspended for three days.

Some city officials are stumped at how little accountability there has been since the agency came under the city's control in 2011. It receives about $6 million annually in city taxpayer funds.

"It concerns me that any agency funded to that extent by the city wouldn't be required to follow the policies of the city," said Councilwoman Carol Berz, head of the council's human resources committee. "We do all the bookkeeping. If that's correct, then how could that have gone on?"

•••

Corinne Hill came from Dallas in 2012, where she was interim director of the library, to run Chattanooga's library, which was at the time leaderless after the former director, David Clapp, retired.

For the past two-and-a-half years, Hill has cleaned house, getting rid of hundreds of old book collections and unused federal research material, making room for new collections, space for people to hold public or private meetings and a coffee shop. From across the country she recruited new leaders, including Backus and Nate Hill, to come work for her. This year, Mayor Andy Berke's office gave the library more money for Nate Hill to work with leaders to set up an open data portal for the public to get easier access to city statistics.

In order to get fresh ideas and to observe what the best libraries in the country were doing, Corinne Hill said, she traveled and encouraged her staff to go across the country. In the summer of 2013, she took two overseas trips.

In June 2013, she spent more than $10,000 to take Nate Hill and Backus with her to the Next Library International Conference in Aarhus, Denmark, to present and to study how some of the world's best libraries function, with features such as around-the-clock hours with minimal staff.

Then in August, both Corinne Hill and Nate Hill traveled to Singapore for nearly two weeks for the International Association of Libraries Conference to meet with leading experts in the field and discuss how technology needs to be integrated with libraries.

In every month of the year except December, Corinne Hill, Nate Hill or Backus took trips stateside, either to speaking events or to library-related conferences. During some of those trips, Nate Hill and Backus were paid to speak and also were being paid by the library -- which Sewell reported to the state comptroller's office as suspected fraud.

The bills for all their U.S. trips ranged from only the cost for the flights to a $2,300 trip to Washington, D.C., for Corinne Hill to speak to the Library of Congress. She stayed in Washington for six days at the Capitol Hill Hotel for nearly $1,650, or $275 a night.

Sewell found that on many of the trips the staff wasn't using government standard rates for reimbursement, which range from $84 a night for a hotel or $180 to $220 in cities where the cost of living is higher, such as Washington, D.C.

The total number of trips taken by library officials is unknown, because some were paid in total by an outside organization or Chattanooga's nonprofit Friends of the Library.

The Friends of the Library supports the library, and its latest IRS form shows the nonprofit organization gave $86,000 for books, equipment and staff training. But the nonprofit wouldn't release its travel reimbursements to the Times Free Press.

•••

When Sewell's audit broke, critics asked the library's board of directors how dozens of trips and leaders absent from their daily duties for the library benefits taxpayers and residents locally. Does Chattanooga benefit?

Board Chairman Jim Kennedy defended the trips and said they increased the Chattanooga library's profile across the world. And indeed the library's improved operation is getting recognition and visitors from library leaders from New York City to Helsinki, Finland.

Meanwhile, the number of locals visiting the library has risen. In 2008, 519,799 people were counted coming through the four branches of the library. Last year, 553,150 came into the four branches -- about a 6 percent increase in six years.

Corinne Hill argues that her staff is more motivated and has modeled the Chattanooga library after great public libraries that the staff has visited in the last two years. She said she has made it her goal to send as many staffers to conferences as she can each year. Now that she has a higher profile, she said she uses her travel fund to send her staff and finds ways to pay for her own trips through other means.

As of the September board meetings, she began submitting a list of the library's monthly travel expenses to the board, noting whether the city or another organization is paying for the trips. Corinne Hill also is studying how to follow all city personnel policies, and she asked the board to pay for staff training on those policies.

In October, she'll be gone 12 days, 10 of them weekdays, to speak in Colorado at a conference, attend a digital strategies conference in Monterey, Calif., and then go to Chile with the Gates Foundation. All those trips will be paid for by the sponsoring organizations, she said.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick Smith at jsmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

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