Feds, investigating conflict of interest, freeze $4.6 million in UConn grants
A federal research agency has suspended $4.6 million in grants it awarded to the University of Connecticut while federal officials investigate the university’s use of grant money to buy equipment from a tech company owned by two UConn professors.
State Auditors Robert M. Ward and John C. Geragosian notified Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on Friday of the suspension and charged that the public university failed to notify their office of the investigation, as state law requires.
“Furthermore, 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 auditors wrote Malloy. “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.”
The National Science Foundation — one of the university’s largest research grantees — informed UConn in December that they would be suspending seven grants, as recommended by the federal agency’s inspector general.
“That suspension of the referenced awards is reasonable to protect the interests of the government,” NSF Grants Officer J. Christopher Robey wrote to UConn last December.
Those grants were authorized to fund research involving underwater robotics and antenna systems and their capacity to enhance discovery or rescue operations. But they were suspended after UConn used $253,500 of the grant funds to buy acoustic modems from Aquatic Sensor Network Technology.
Computer Science and Engineering Professor Jun-Hong Cui, a former assistant dean for graduate studies and diversity, and Professor Zhijie Shi, requested approval of those purchases. But they also are two principals of Aquatic Sensor Network Technology, according to the auditors.
That company had been supported by the university’s Technology Incubation Program since its launch in May 2009 through April 2014, giving it access to UConn facilities and other resources.
Not only were the purchases initiated by UConn faculty “who had a significant interest in AquaSeNT,” but two of the purchase requisitions they signed indicated, “I have no financial or other beneficial interest in the vendor,” the auditors wrote.
The auditors learned of the grant controversy while conducting a regular, periodic audit of the university. That audit is still in progress. But state law requires the office to notify the governor before an audit is completed if any significant irregularities are found.
The researchers did not respond to requests for interviews Friday afternoon, and telephone messages left with Aquatic Sensor Network Technology were not returned.
But the auditors wrote that the two professors told the auditors’ staff that they hadn’t read the portion of the purchase form that included the conflict of interest disclosure language.
The federal agency suspended $4.62 million in grants to UConn and $1.1 million in grants to AquaSeNT.
UConn responded Friday, saying that university officials have been cooperating with the federal investigation.
“The university is not and has never been the target of the National Science Foundation investigation,” the university wrote in a statement. “UConn procurement officials would have blocked the NSF-funded purchase if the … employees had disclosed their conflicts of interest as principals in the company from which the items were purchased.”
Ward and Geragosian warned in their letter to the governor that this “may be indicative of control deficiencies at UConn,” and that “it does not appear that there is a mechanism in place…to communicate conflicts of interest.”
UConn also said Friday that it has prevented the individuals connected to the investigation from obtaining new grants, is conducting an internal review and will seek reimbursement from the company if it determines that funds were used inappropriately.
“UConn is committed to the highest standards in financial controls involving research, procurement and employee behavior,” the university statement continued. “This has always been the case and will continue.”
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