Two UConn professors who’ve been accused of misusing funds from the National Science Foundation didn’t fully read documentation that required them to disclose a conflict of interest, according to state auditors.
The auditors wrote to Governor Dannel Malloy’s office late last week, revealing that NSF grants to UConn, totaling $4.6 million, have been suspended pending an investigation.
It’s alleged the professors approved the use of $253,500 to buy aquatic sensors from a company that they owned, Aquatic Sensor Network Technology, or AquaSeNT. The company was founded by UConn faculty, and participated in the university's Technology Incubation Program. The auditors say the professors claim they didn’t fully read the purchase form, which says they must have no financial interest in any vendor.
"They told us that, due to time constraints, mistakes were made because they rushed through the proposal documentation, which included the initial financial interest forms," said the letter from auditors John Geragosian and Robert Ward. "The faculty should have been aware of what they were signing," it added.
The NSF is investigating, but state auditors also say the university failed to notify state officials of the controversy, as required by law. The letter concluded, "UConn should have reported the suspension of the NSF grants and the fact that purchase requisitions were approved on the basis of inaccurate disclosure of the financial interests of the faculty requesting the purchases. We anticipate issuing findings regarding this matter as part of our ongoing audit of UConn."
UConn disagrees. In a statement issued after the auditors' letter, the university said, "the NSF suspended its grant to the private company. The NSF also suspended other grants to the individuals at UConn whose conduct in the company was in question. The NSF has not alleged that any state funds were misused."
The statement also said that UConn "has been aware of these issues and has been diligently addressing them since summer 2014."
Below is the emailed statement from UConn in full:
Statement Regarding Auditors’ Letter of May 1, 2015
UConn has been aware of these issues and has been diligently addressing them since summer 2014. The University is not and has never been the target of the National Science Foundation investigation, and we have been cooperating fully.
The NSF Office of Inspector General notified UConn last year that it was investigating AquaSeNT, a private company in which UConn faculty members were principals. The investigation did not involve the individuals acting in their capacity as UConn employees.
UConn procurement officials would have blocked the NSF-funded purchase if the three employees had disclosed their conflicts of interest as principals in the company from which the items were purchased.
The NSF suspended its grant to the private company. The NSF also suspended other grants to the individuals at UConn whose conduct in the company was in question. The NSF has not alleged that any state funds were misused.
In addition, the University has:
- Restructured other grants to remove these individuals;
- Prevented these individuals from obtaining new grants;
- Been conducting a thorough internal investigation, which has already resulted in strengthening internal reviews and controls;
- Committed to seek reimbursement from these individuals and/or the company if it is determined that NSF grant funds were used inappropriately;
- Initiated appropriate actions in relation to the individuals in their capacity as UConn faculty members.
UConn and the Auditors of Public Accounts have a difference of opinion about the timing of reporting as required under Section 4-33a. UConn’s understanding of the statute is that reporting is required when allegations have been investigated and wrongdoing has been confirmed.
With this matter still under investigation by multiple agencies – including but not limited to NSF and UConn – the issue remains unresolved about whether allegations, in the absence of a conclusion, trigger the reporting requirement.
UConn is committed to the highest standards in financial controls involving research, procurement, and employee behavior. This has always been the case and will continue to drive the University in its work as a research pioneer, economic engine for Connecticut, and center of academic excellence and innovation.