Feds, UConn faculty settle conflict-of-interest case

A handful of professors at the University of Connecticut have agreed to pay $400,000 to settle claims that they inappropriately used federal research grants for a tech company three of them owned while not accurately disclosing their role in the company.

The professors did not admit wrongdoing in the settlement.

“Fraudulent schemes involving companies and individuals who repeatedly make false statements to the government in order to obtain scarce federal SBIR program research dollars will not be tolerated,” Allison C. Lerner, inspector general of the National Science Foundation, said when announcing the settlement Thursday.

The National Science Foundation also has terminated $4.6 million in seven other grants to UConn that were linked to the individuals involved in the investigation, which was conducted by the NSF inspector general and U.S. attorney’s office in Connecticut.

UConn claimed the investigation did not involve funding or grants UConn was involved with, and the issue was with a private company owned by three professors who happened to work at the university. It said Thursday it never was a target of the NSF investigation.

“When our office inquired about this matter on Feb. 20, 2015, we were initially told that the investigation only involved” Aquatic Sensor Network Technology LLC, the state auditors, who also investigated the matter, wrote the governor last year. “The agency did not disclose to our office that this matter involved funds administered by UConn until we made it clear to UConn that we were already aware that it did.”

Computer Science and Engineering Professor Jun-Hong Cui, a former assistant dean for graduate studies and diversity, and professors Zhijie Shi and Shengli Zhou are three principals of Aquatic Sensor Network Technology. The two other researchers involved were not principals but also had ties to the company and the university.

That company had been supported by the university’s Technology Incubation Program from its launch in May 2009 through April 2014, giving it access to UConn facilities and other resources.

Not only were there purchases initiated by UConn faculty “who had a significant interest in AquaSeNT,” state auditors concluded, but the purchase requisitions they signed indicated, “I have no financial or other beneficial interest in the vendor.”

Those statements and time sheets are what the federal auditors and U.S. attorney’s office took issue with when pursuing civil charges against the faculty members.

Calls left by the Connecticut Mirror for Cui and Zhijie were not returned. In the settlement, signed May 20 by all five individuals involved, “The AquaSeNET parties expressly deny each and every of the government’s allegations set forth herein, and they expressly deny they engaged in any wrongful conduct whatsoever. This settlement agreement is made in compromise of disputed claims and is neither an admission of wrongdoing or liability by the AquaSeNET parties, nor a concession by the United States that its contentions and claims are not well founded.”

“In order to ensure that federal research funds are managed wisely and efficiently, all recipients of federal grants must strictly adhere to the regulations applicable to those grants,” said Deirdre M. Daly, U.S. attorney for the District of Connecticut. “Failure to do so can result in significant consequences.”

UConn placed the three individuals on paid administrative leave.

“UConn has not yet seen the settlement agreement announced today by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the NSF. The university will assess the employment status of these individuals once it has the opportunity to obtain and review the settlement agreement and any other information available from the NSF,” said Stephanie Reitz, a spokeswoman for the university.

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