UPDATE – Another County Commissioner Speaks Out On Kilbride’s Spending Scandal: “At a time when students are being asked to pay more in tuition, it is really troubling to see a story like the one uncovered by Knight News,” said Bill Segal, who currently leads the pack of Orange County mayoral candidates in fundraising. “I hope the leaders of the SGA will immediately provide a full accounting of what they spent on this retreat and why they needed to spend it.”


Note from the Editor:
KnightNews.com prides itself on being a watchdog for students, serving as the voice for those whose outcries would otherwise not be heard. Sometimes, we must report on stories we wish we didn’t have to — and this is certainly one of them.


SGA ALREADY UNDER SCRUTINY, NOW THIS:
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Coming at a time when Student Government has been the target of major scrutiny for what attorneys say is illegal behavior, like denying media access to public meetings in violation of Florida Sunshine Law, we’ve now learned that UCF Student Government Association President, Mike Kilbride, spent $8,000 of student money on a lavish executive retreat at Reunion Resort and Club, a world-class, five-star resort just outside of Disney World Resort —not to mention the dozens of tickets to Disney that have mysteriously surfaced from an unknown donor for the Board of Trustee member to hand out to his paid staff.

Official SGA documents we’ve obtained show the budget for this event, which consists of $22-per-plate breakfasts, $35-per-plate lunches and $32-per-plate dinners, all while staying in luxury villas, many of which are privately owned. When we e-mailed President Kilbride asking whether he felt it was a good use of student funds, he refused to answer our question himself. Instead, he had his Chief Information Officer, Shane Chism, who he has appointed as his official spokesperson, reply in a lengthy e-mail leaving our questions unanswered.

Chism did tell us one thing, however: Although the retreat was budgeted at $8,000, he claimed SGA came in under budget. However, when KnightNews.com did some fact-checking, Chism appeared incorrect. We found that the retreat was actually over budget by $327.20, according to the Activity and Service Fee database showing the budgeted amount versus the actual amount spent, which is made public here.

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KnightNews.com e-mailed Chism back on Friday morning to follow up on unanswered questions — as well as new ones raised by Chism’s initial response. Three days later, we still have no answers.

In an exclusive interview with Orange County Commissioner Linda Stewart, a front-runner in the Mayoral race, she tells us how she is appalled at Kibride’s excessive spending. “The students should themselves pay closer attention to who they are electing,” she said.

When KnightNews.com asked what would happen if county commissioners went on a retreat like this, she replied, “We would certainly be written up and the public would have a complete fit about it.”

Over the weekend, as we waited for a response from Kilbride that never came, we paid a visit of our own to the Reunion Resort in Orlando, the same place Kilbride’s retreat was held just weeks ago.

HERE’S WHAT WE FOUND:

The Restaurants

In order to be fair and just, KnightNews.com decided to take an inside look at the resort firsthand, making sure to stop off at the restaurants where Kilbride and his administration dined, the Villas where they slept and the amenities that were available to everyone on the retreat.

According to the SGA budget for this retreat, each person enjoyed a $35-per-plate lunch. Kilbride confirmed that this took place at the hotel on site, so we checked out the menu for ourselves. The documents show Kilbride and his cabinet ate at a restaurant called “Eleven,” which is the most luxurious restaurant on site, serving tapas-style dishes on the 11th floor penthouse of the hotel, overlooking a world-class golf course.

We noted that the most expensive item on the entire menu was the “Togarashi Crusted Cowboy Steak,” which was $32. It’s not clear why their budget was approved for $35 each, when the most expensive meal at the most expensive restaurant was only $32. Kilbride has so far refused to release the menu options requested by KnightNews.com Friday morning, so no other details are available.

At the time of our visit, we had not yet confirmed the exact restaurant where Kilbride dined, so we went to the only other restaurant on site to check out its menu. We decided to order two meals: the first meal would be purchased using a $35 budget, which is the same budget alotted to each member of Kilbride’s cabinet. The second meal would be an attempt to see if a reasonable meal could be ordered for less than $35 on site.

When ordering our first meal, we soon realized that even the most expensive item on the menu, the Brasilian Churrasco steak with jumbo shrimp, along with a side of fried plantains, was only $29. So in addition to this surf and turf, we had to add a glass of Merlot wine — a soft drink wouldn’t have cut it — to hit the same total of $35 that Kilbride enjoyed for his lunch just weeks ago, according to budget documents we obtained.

As for the second meal, we ordered a hand-packed, short rib burger, along with a side of fries — substitutable for a list of other sides — and a glass of soda. The total for this sizable meal was just $16.

When we e-mailed Kilbride asking how this meal was approved, Chism replied on his behalf that not only was it approved, but that “during the budgeting and voting process not a single question or argument was raised.” Days ago, we asked for clarification of what this process included, but we have still not received a response.

This was all in addition to $22 breakfasts and $32 dinners. In an exclusive interview with Logan Berkowitz, former Student Body President, he was surprised they used public money to buy their breakfast.

“We always made sure to stay in a hotel that provided free breakfast to hotel guests, and we had dinner for about $11 per person at an Italian restaurant, which included a main course, appetizer and drink,” he said, based off his immediate memory. He made note that during his administration, they used their large group size to leverage discounts whenever travel was necessary.

To see the menu from the restaurant where Kilbride ate, “Eleven,” click here.

To see our receipt from restaurant where we ordered our meals, click here.

The Villas

When asked about the sleeping accommodations, Kilbride acknowledged that “by staying in group style villas, and restricting travel to Orlando, [SGA was] able to save student money.” We decided to take a tour of one of the Villas in the same area they stayed to see what sort of accommodations they considered to be “money-saving.”

The first red flag this raised, which we asked Kilbride about and still have not received a response, was why it was necessary to stay at the Reunion Resort overnight when it is only about a half hour away from UCF. If SGA really wanted to save students money, why didn’t he and the members of his cabinet stay in their own homes just a short drive away? We asked this question to Kilbride directly, and still have not received an answer.

When a Registered Student Organization asks SGA for money to be able to go on conferences, they must go through a special committee that approves the financial allocations. Kilbride’s spokesperson compared the retreat’s funding to these student groups, claiming Kilbride’s cabinet received the same treatment in terms of the $250 per student standard conference travel allowance. However, we at KnightNews.com obtained the offical document SGA uses to allocate money to these other groups, and found this statement:

“Unless there is an exception given by the University President, or designee, hotels are not reimbursable expenses if the overnight (or longer) stay is less than 50 miles from the traveler’s headquarters or home.”

This Conference, Registration and Travel form is made public on SGA’s website. Read it for yourself here.

KnightNews.com checked Google maps, and it placed the resort just 44.4 miles from UCF. This begs the question of why Kilbride’s administration can stay at a resort overnight within 50 miles of UCF, but ordinary students are held to a different standard? We asked Kilbride, and he still has not responded.

Once the KnightNews.com crew finally stepped inside the villa, we couldn’t believe what we found. It was a lavishly decorated, three bedroom villa overlooking a signature golf course and pool made available to guests, with tennis courts and a pro shop just feet away. The villa was complete with stainless steal appliances, granite counter tops, crown molding, spacious living, dining areas and luxurious furnishings and art.

At first, we thought there was no way Kilbride would have been approved to stay in a place like this, so we asked Reunion Resort staff if the Center Court villa we toured was nicer and more luxurious than others, and we were told they are all just as luxurious and well-equipped.

To top it off, it came to our surprise that many of the villas at Reunion Report are actually owned by private individuals, who share the profits of villa rentals 50/50 with the resort. Were the villas Kilbride stayed in owned by a private individual? If so, who was that person? Once again, we asked and still have not received an answer.

The Disney Tickets

When we sent our initial e-mail to Kilbride asking about the retreat, Chism defended him, calling Kilbride “a guardian of student dollars and interests.” He even told us something that we found very interesting, and that is that the Disney tickets used to take the 33 members of Kilbride’s cabinet to the theme park were actually not purchased with student money, but “were donated free of charge by individuals in the UCF community.”

KnightNews.com decided to look into the rules regarding public employees’ receiving gifts, such as Disney tickets, and we came across the UCF Code of Ethics. Section A, entitled “Prohibited Actions or Conduct,” reads as follows:

  1. Solicitation and Acceptance of Gifts. Public employees may not solicit or accept anything of value, such as a gift, loan, promise of future employment, favor or service, that is based on an understanding that their vote, official action, or judgment will be influenced by such gift

In addition to the UCF Code of Ethics, we looked at the Florida Commission on Ethics. On page 2, section III, entitled “Ethics Laws,” it includes a similar statement. It also lists the UCF Board of Trustees, which Kilbride sits on, as a body required to fill out paperwork to disclose gifts.

In an effort to fight for ethics at UCF, we asked Kilbride who donated the tickets and why, and we still have not received an answer — three days later.

However, in our interview with Logan Berkowitz, we asked what the procedures were for accepting gifts during his SGA presidency. He said the rules were very tight regarding gifts, requiring transparency.

KnightNews.com is still looking to see if these Disney tickets need to be reported through the proper channels, and we will post any findings we uncover.

Check out this photo of Kilbride and a few members of his cabinet enjoying a ride on Disney’s Splash Mountain here.

AS SGA’S REVIEW CONTINUES, WHAT’S NEXT?

After KnightNews.com asked tough questions, retained an attorney and interviewed County Commissioner Linda Stewart, who called for a review of SGA policies, the student body now awaits a response from Mike Kilbride and the embattled organization.

We will continue gathering as much information as possible, keeping our readers informed.

If you know of any information related to this story that needs to be brought to public light, call or text the KnightNews.com hotline at 407-5-TIP-UCF.