AP Exclusive: State official must repay $7,200

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 28, 2014 at 4:14 pm •  Published: March 28, 2014

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — The chief of state parks in Illinois must repay $7,200 of travel reimbursement he wasn't entitled to after inquiries by The Associated Press, the latest in a series of missteps at the Department of Natural Resources since February.

Ronald House, the department's director of the office of land management, was reimbursed nearly 80 times for commuting to or from work when state travel rules forbid such reimbursement, according to an AP review of state records.

It's another blemish for Natural Resources officials, who initially defended the reimbursements as proper, after a series of recent public relations troubles: a deputy director who attended fishing tournaments while on sick leave and two mining regulators who accepted campaign contributions from a coal-mine operator.

Chris Young, spokesman for IDNR Director Marc Miller, initially said the director would not require House, who makes $75,000 annually, to repay the money because it was not his error. But Miller changed his mind this week and asked for reimbursement, ten days after the agency acknowledged the error.

Young didn't know if there are other administrators who might be in the same situation as House, whose main responsibility since joining IDNR in September 2010 is overseeing state parks.

"The IDNR believed it was properly interpreting the travel rules ... " Young said in a prepared statement. "Going forward, IDNR will provide training for all personnel who review travel requests, update its employee handbook and strengthen overall travel policies within the agency."

House lives in Benton, in southern Illinois, and his officially designated headquarters is 165 miles away in Springfield. Rules set by the governor's travel control board specify that on any trip in which a traveler goes to or through headquarters, that person must subtract any commuting mileage.

An AP review of travel records showed 78 instances in which House traveled between Benton and Springfield with a side trip in between — typically Sparta, home of IDNR's World Shooting and Recreational Complex. On those trips, only the side mileage to Sparta, about 20 miles, could be reimbursed, but House received the full 185 miles.

House served as interim director of the Sparta shooting complex from September 2011 to June 2013, Young said.

In total, House was paid $8,700 for 15,700 miles, when he was only eligible for $1,500 for 2,800 miles, according to the AP review.