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On the university's dime: A professor's unchecked expenses

Updated: July 24, 2019 06:44 PM

A six-month investigation by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS found at least $30,000 in questionable spending by a world-renowned explorer and professor of education at the University of Minnesota, including first class flights, expensive meals, and gifts that now appear unrelated to the professor's work at the university.

In anticipation of the report by 5 INVESTIGATES, University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel sent an e-mail to all faculty and staff on Tuesday afternoon with the subject line "holding ourselves accountable" and asked them to review the university's expense policy.

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"It only takes an instance or two of falling short to damage the public trust," Gabel wrote.

University administrators recently confirmed they've launched their own internal audit of professor Aaron Doering's expense reports, but 5 INVESTIGATES has learned administrators were alerted to Doering's alleged misuse of grant funds as early as December 2017. It's unclear what action the university took at the time.

Big expenses

Expenses that Doering either charged to his university credit card or filed for reimbursement between 2014 and 2018 included:

  • $2,300 for a trip to San Jose and Monterey, California, to attend a "project meeting." Doering charged the university for a plane ticket for his then-girlfriend, Molly Rosenblatt. He listed her as "providing PR consultation." Rosenblatt denies providing any consultation and provided photos showing the couple was on what she called "a vacation." Receipts show Doering rented a "luxury convertible" for the trip.
     
  • $1,500 for two women's Canada Goose jackets. Doering listed them as "expedition field supply," but Rosenblatt said the professor gave them to her as gifts in 2018. Rosenblatt provided pictures of her wearing the two jackets in question. She said she never accompanied Doering on any of his expeditions. "I thought those were gifts from him," Rosenblatt said.
     
  • $1,200 for a first-class flight from the Twin Cities to Memphis in 2017 for former fiancée, Nina Orezzoli. On the receipt submitted to the university Doering wrote "consultant expense." Orezzoli said she provided no consultation of any kind.
     
  • $900 for a flight to Bali in April 2017. Photos show Doering was there for a "commitment ceremony" with Orezzoli.
     
  • Nearly $4,000 for three nights in Amsterdam after Doering spoke at a conference in Russia. Doering told the university he was conducting research for an upcoming project, but Orezzoli said they were there strictly for pleasure. Doering claimed hundreds of dollars in meal per diem expenses from the university and also got reimbursed for a luxury hotel stay.
     
  • More than $400 for the purchase of a PlayStation 4 video game console, a Star Wars Battlefront video game, and a controller at Best Buy in October 2018. Doering expensed the purchase as "testing equipment." Two women, including his ex-wife Amy Matthews, said Doering gave the video game system to his son for his birthday. "Seeing that that was billed to the university? That's kind of the heartbreaking thing," Matthews said. "When it's this broad, it's kind of mind-boggling."

A six-month investigation by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS found at least $30,000 in questionable spending by Doering. Here's a look at where some of those expenses occurred:

View UM Professor Expenses in a full screen map


Doering's past behavior

5 INVESTIGATES started asking questions about Doering's conduct at the university after police arrested him in December 2018 for domestic assault. Prosecutors say he choked and dragged his girlfriend at the time, Molly Rosenblatt, inside her apartment. 

Two more women, Matthews and Orezzoli, later came forward and told 5 INVESTIGATES that Doering physically abused them as well.

RELATED: 2 more women say they were abused by well-known professor at U of M

In June, Doering pleaded guilty to the domestic assault charge and at the time suggested he had no plans on leaving his tenured position at the university.

RELATED: U of M professor pleads guilty to domestic assault

When asked if he wanted to stay at the university and whether he thought he should be allowed to remain with the university, Doering said "absolutely."

Fraud examiner finds red flags

5 INVESTIGATES shared Doering's expense records with certified fraud examiner (CFE) Jill DeSanto who flagged several items during her own independent review.

"A lot of things looked personal to me," she said. "A lot of clothing purchases for himself and for a female companion it looked like…What I saw particularly was a lot of expenses going through without receipts."

When the professor did provide receipts from his travels around the world, DeSanto said some of them didn't make sense.

"Well, first of all, who needs a luxury convertible for a business trip?" DeSanto asked.

She noted that Doering labeled a November 2017 receipt from Argentina as "taxi" when it was actually for food and drink from a restaurant, Parilla Los Caldenes. 

That same year, Doering submitted a $391 receipt from Iceland as a "tour" expense, but the receipt showed it was from the LAVA restaurant at the Blue Lagoon resort.

DeSanto said she was surprised the university had not already flagged some of the expenses that she found to be questionable.

"The same level of scrutiny should apply to anyone traveling and because he accumulated a lot of expenses, the scrutiny should be even greater," Desanto said. "Bigger dollar numbers. It's university money."

Administrators face questions

Jean Quam, the dean of the College of Education and Human Development, said she became aware of questions about Doering's spending in January.

When asked why university administrators did not flag some of Doering's questionable expenses sooner, Quam would not give a specific answer.

"I can talk generally about receipts," Quam said. "If there's a justification for them, if there's receipts, if there's a rationale about why...funding was spent on a particular item and the faculty member signs off on that as a legitimate expense, my expectation is that faculty is telling the truth."

However, 5 INVESTIGATES has confirmed University of Minnesota Provost Karen Hanson was notified in writing of Doering's potential misuse of grant funding in December 2017.

In a statement, Hanson said state law prevents her from commenting, but she also wrote:

"I do follow up on allegations of misconduct by a faculty member," Hanson stated. "Our policies clearly delineate the behavioral and management expectations of all faculty and staff, and we take action when these policies are violated."

It's unknown what action, if any, the university took at the time Hanson was first contacted.

Quam again declined to give a direct answer when asked whether the university will take any additional steps to prevent future abuse of university-issued credit cards and expense accounts.

"I've been at the university for almost 40 years," Quam said. "I think that we are very good stewards of money from the state."

Still on the payroll

Considered a climate change expert and famous for what the university calls "adventure learning" around the world, Doering—a tenured professor—has helped to raise more than $900,000 at the university, according to figures provided by the university.

Even as Doering serves time in the Hennepin County Workhouse for his domestic assault conviction, Quam confirmed the professor remains on paid leave from the university and he continues to collect a salary of $114,000 a year.

When first contacted by 5 INVESTIGATES about the expenses Doering filed with the university, the professor's attorney, Christa Groshek, said she "would reach back out" if Doering had any comment. In an e-mail Wednesday evening Groshek said she had not spoken to her client about his expenses and wrote:

"I do not represent Professor Doering as it relates to any allegations of misappropriating university funds."

Contact Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen at 651-642-4534 or e-mail him at erasmussen@kstp.com

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Eric Rasmussen

Copyright 2019 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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