Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include additional information and statements from other college systems in Texas that awarded HEERF funds to employees.

AUSTIN (KXAN) – Amid a KXAN investigation of Austin Community College’s use of student pandemic relief money, the institution acknowledged on Friday it launched an internal review of its aid distribution and how 115 full-time employees received nearly $500,000 of pandemic grants intended to help struggling students.

KXAN found many of those employees were career staffers who weren’t taking course credit before, or after, the semester they enrolled and qualified for emergency student assistance, according to records of ACC’s use of Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund money.

KXAN began filing record requests and investigating months ago, after receiving an anonymous tip from a person claiming to be a concerned ACC employee.

HEERF was a multi-billion-dollar aid program to help college students with basic needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. The fund was intended to be used for food, housing, child care, health care and technology.

ACC staff that received HEERF money included a director-level employee earning over $80,000 who received $1,500 and a provost-office worker with a $90,000 salary who got a $3,500 grant. Neither of them took a course before or after the semester they signed up for classes and applied for grants, according to records obtained by KXAN through the Texas Public Information Act.

KXAN also found nine workers in the financial aid office received HEERF money, including five who were involved in the handling of grant fund applications – which could include application approval, denial, awarding or processing, according to ACC.

ACC did not comment on specific employees, courses or grants, but the college said its ongoing review has found that all disbursements of HEERF funds reviewed so far have complied with federal guidelines.

However, one COVID-aid watchdog said the college’s use of the student aid raises troubling red flags.

Bob Westbrooks, a former federal inspector general and past executive director of the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, reviewed KXAN’s findings. Westbrooks authored a book about his experiences overseeing the largest federal relief effort in U.S. history called “Left Holding the Bag: A Watchdog’s Account of How Washington Fumbled its COVID Test.”

He said ACC’s HEERF spending raises “serious concerns” and doesn’t appear to fit the intended purpose of the program. Given what KXAN found, the spending should be independently audited, he said.

“This was not intended as a windfall. This was intended as a lifeline,” Westbrooks said. “If you think about college campuses, you suddenly had students that were kicked out of their dorms that lost their campus meal ticket, that, for a lot of them, lost their part-time college job that they … depended on to finance their college education. That’s what this money was intended for.”

Dr. Richard Rhodes, ACC’s chancellor throughout the pandemic, defended the college’s use of HEERF money and said all applicants and applications were treated fairly and evaluated by a committee. Everybody who received funds, regardless of their employment status, was a student at the time and qualified under the program’s guidelines. All recipients were impacted by the pandemic in some way, he said.

“Individuals, including our faculty and staff, were displaced. You know, they faced economic challenges,” Rhodes said. “People, including employees of ACC, they have spouses, they have children, they have parents – all impacted.”

Rhodes said every HEERF applicant, including employees and those working in the financial aid office, had to explain their need for aid and received a fair evaluation.

“Every single individual is a different case, and that is why we have a committee that took a look, not based on income levels, based on need at that point in time,” Rhodes said. “We can’t discriminate against because of where they work, who they report to.”

Rhodes’ last day at ACC was Sept. 29, the same day he agreed to sit for an interview with KXAN. He announced he would resign in January.

‘Internal Review’

For months leading up to that interview, KXAN submitted multiple rounds of public information requests seeking HEERF payment records from ACC. In the last week of September, KXAN presented its findings to ACC and requested an interview. Within two days, ACC provided KXAN with a draft press release saying it had launched an “internal review” of its own HEERF spending in response to a “tip” submitted to the U.S. Department of Education.

The press release said ACC determined its own requirements for disbursing the funds followed federal guidelines, and the school is in the process of “proactively evaluating” its disbursements.

“We established a review committee to provide a check-and-balance system,” Neil Vickers, ACC’s executive vice chancellor of finance and administration, said in a prepared statement. “Our review is ongoing. To date, we have found that all recipients at ACC were ACC students, and all met the guidelines set forth by the federal government.”

Without an independent audit of the spending, Westbrooks couldn’t say whether ACC followed the guidelines. The way some employees chose to enroll in courses without taking a course before or after “certainly raises a serious question on whether enrolling for the course was a pretext to get federal assistance.”

Of the 115 full-time ACC employees who received funds, 76 took zero courses in the semester prior to the one that qualified them for the federal aid. Forty of those employees also did not take course credit in the semester after they got HEERF money, according to ACC records obtained by KXAN.

Salaries of employees that received HEERF money ranged from $41,000 for many entry-level workers to an assistant dean earning over $100,000, according to ACC’s records.

Rhodes said the college wants to be open with the public about its tax-dollar spending.

“We’re not trying to hide anything,” Rhodes said. “I want to be transparent, and I want to get the facts out.”

ACC’s HEERF spending to full-time employees shows they received an average of about $4,000 total. Westbrooks said that was higher than the average amounts he had seen provided to students in his area.

“That’s just what I’ve seen from my personal knowledge in the Washington DC area. My experience was students were getting a couple $100, not a couple of $1,000,” Westbrooks said.

In all, ACC doled out over $70.6 million in HEERF money to more than 20,000 students from April 2020 to January 2023 – a huge amount, but just a fraction of what was spread across the country, according to ACC and federal records. ACC has a total enrollment of more than 70,000.

Billions and trillions

Congress provided $76 billion to the HEERF program through three pandemic emergency spending bills. Of that money, $19.5 billion was awarded to over 1,050 public two-year colleges across the country, with $4.5 billion awarded through student grants, according to a federal report.

Nationwide, almost half of enrolled students got HEERF grants, according to the federal report.

The federal government left it to the individual colleges and universities to determine how the grants would be distributed and how grant amounts would be calculated, according to the federal report.

Institutions were required to prioritize students with exceptional financial needs, like Pell Grant recipients and others who had “reduced income or food or housing insecurity,” according to the federal report.

It was that leeway afforded to state agencies and lower levels of government that, in some cases, allowed for questionable disbursements, Westbrooks said.

“A lot of times with federal programs, you’re not going to write a lot of the requirements in the law, because what is needed in Texas may not be what’s needed somewhere else in the country,” Westbrooks said. “You leave a tremendous amount of discretion to the grantee, and how they use their money.”

Across the country, in other pandemic programs like the paycheck protection program and worker’s compensation, the emphasis on speed over caution led to outright pillaging of billions of dollars.

Westbrooks said there was about $5 trillion in pandemic aid distributed, with roughly $500 billion lost to fraud and waste.

The country simply can’t sustain that type of loss again, Westbrooks said.

ACC not alone

ACC is also not alone in its disbursement of HEERF funds to employees. Records obtained by KXAN show the San Antonio area’s community college system, Alamo Colleges, disbursed $505,000 to 190 employees.

Dallas College paid over $176,000 to 41 full time employees, according to records obtained by KXAN. Those employees included a director, an associate dean, at least two financial aid specialists and an accountant. The records show the director, financial aid specialists and accountant were not taking any courses in the semester before they took course credit to get student grant funds. In addition, one employee signed up for course credit in three consecutive semester and received $12,000 but never finished any of the courses, according to records provided to KXAN by Dallas College.

Dallas College said in a statement it could not comment on specific students. The college said it awarded an overall total of $74.4 million in HEERF grants to its students.

“HEERF funds were available to any student at Dallas College and most of our funds were awarded as Emergency Aid to help students with housing, transportation, child care, educational expenses, etc. throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” a Dallas College spokesperson said a statement. “It is common practice for college staff to enroll in courses, in which case they would be treated just like any other student at Dallas College in terms of their ability to apply for and receive Emergency Aid through the HEERF grants. Completion was not an eligibility factor in the HEERF federal guidelines.”

KXAN is awaiting confirmation from other community college systems in the state on their use of HEERF funds, and we will update this report with that information when it becomes available.