Secrecy shrouds case of scientist caught squandering grants

An investigation into the professor's spending found "substantial evidence" of misconduct and fraud involving science grants. The federal government released the report but redacted all details that could help identify the professor or university involved. ~ M.Munro Photo

An investigation into the professor’s spending found “substantial evidence” of misconduct and fraud involving science grants. The federal government released the report but redacted all details that could help identify the professor or university involved.
~ M.Munro Photo

Published: January 27, 2014

The professor used $1 million in Canadian science grants as a piggy bank to finance personal travels and his private business.

He expensed trips to science conferences he did not attend, rented apartments for extended stays outside the country, loaned business associates money, and bought gear that had nothing to with his research, according to documents describing the misconduct.

Postmedia News obtained the documents, using the Access to Information Act, from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council that distributes close to $1 billion a year to academics across Canada.

The council will not name the scientist saying it must “protect” his identity because of the Privacy Act. It is also refuses to identify the university involved, despite NSERC’s recent pledge to be more transparent about academics who misuse taxpayers’ money.

The documents do, however, give a glimpse of one of the council’s most protracted, contentious and serious misconduct cases to be publicly disclosed.

NSERC was keen to see the professor criminally charged, but the RCMP and federal lawyers decided against it, which means the case will remain shrouded in secrecy.

The 1,295 heavily redacted pages released by NSERC indicate the professor was an academic star. He had received $1 million in funding from various science agencies, almost half of it from NSERC, when questions arose about where the money was going.

The grants were supposed to pay for the professor and his graduate students to explore bright and innovative scientific ideas.

But an anonymous complaint in 2008 indicated the professor was dipping into the grants for much more mundane pursuits. He was spotted using the campus mail service to send packages promoting a private business. The complaint led to a university investigation that concluded the professor was misspending grant money on a lot more than postage.

Investigators found tens of thousands of dollars of questionable travel claims and other “ineligible expenses” charged to the professor’s research account.

There is “significant evidence” the professor “committed misconduct and, in fact, fraud in his academic research by improperly charging both NSERC and/or university research grant accounts to support his (word redacted) business,” the dean who led the investigation reported to the university president in 2009.

She said the professor made many trips abroad in 2007 and 2008 to meet with business associates and pursue non-research activities, at times renting apartments for “extended” periods of time.

The professor insisted the personal activities just coincided with academic conferences and research activities. The dean did not buy it and told the president: “The so-called ‘coincidences’ are simply too frequent to ignore.

“The overwhelming body of evidence indicates (name redacted) was using grant funds for travel that was, in fact, primarily for the purpose of completing activities associated with his (redacted) business,” said the dean, noting there was no evidence the professor registered or participated in conferences he billed for.

There was also equipment  for “non-university related” activities charged to his research, some of which ended up in his home, and payments and loans to business associates. “I had empathy,” the professor said in his defence at one point. The investigators uncovered “evidence to suggest that there was intent to conceal the nature of at least one of these expenditures through the falsification on an invoice.”

The university informed NSERC in late 2008, and forwarded details of the misspending in May 2009.

The professor was furious. In one 2009 email he castigated “small-minded, foolish” university for accusing him of misusing money, and threatened to expose what he described as the  “illicit workings” of the university’s administration.

The university’s “clandestine” investigation had gone through his “private” emails and “violates all known human rights,” wrote the professor, who soon hired a legal team to take over communications with the university and NSERC.

The redacted documents do not show how much in total the professor was accused of misspending from his $1 million in research grants, which came from NSERC and several other sources, the names of which are blanked out.

In September 2009 NSERC froze the grants it had given him, which the documents indicate totalled more than $400,000. The council also asked him to repay more than $60,000 — “the remaining balance improperly charged to his NSERC grant account.”

It is unclear if the professor returned a penny from his own pocket. It appears the university reimbursed NSERC much of the $60,000 because the professor and his lawyers negotiated an  “agreement” with the university to drop the claims against him.

The council referred the case to the RCMP’s commercial crime division, which launched an investigation in early 2010.  The documents show council officials were confident an arrest warrant would be issued, but it did not materialize.

“After consultation with the Crown and a review of the evidence, a determination was made to not pursue criminal charges,” RCMP spokesman Cpl. David Falls told Postmedia News.

NSERC will not say if the professor is still teaching university and supervising students.

But the professor does have the dubious — if secret — distinction of being barred by NSERC, Canada’s largest funder of science and engineering research.

“NSERC is deeply concerned about your misuse of grant funds and contraventions of NSERC policy and the confirmed findings of misconduct,” Suzanne Fortier, who was then president of NSERC, told the professor in a letter dated Dec. 22, 2010. Fortier now heads McGill University.

“You are ineligible indefinitely to hold or apply for NSERC funding,” Fortier said.



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