The Daily Evergreen

Audit finds associate dean misused grant funding

Emails show CAHNRS administrators charged salaries to grants despite instructions not to

CODY COTTIER, Evergreen reporter

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.


Email This Story






A recently completed state audit found reasonable cause to believe a WSU administrator instructed university personnel to improperly charge two employees’ salaries to federal grants, while the employees were not working on those grants.

The audit report states that James Moyer, associate dean in the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences, authorized the charges. He did so without explicit permission from regents professor Norman Lewis, the principal investigator on the grants, as required by the terms of the grants. Furthermore, Lewis said in an interview, Moyer did this knowingly after being told not to.

“You would have to believe,” Lewis said, “that the modus operandi was as long as it doesn’t get out of WSU, you can just do whatever you like.”

Emails provided to The Daily Evergreen show that Lewis explained the grant’s terms to CAHNRS administration before the employees were assigned to the grants, writing in an email that either he or his co-principal investigator had to agree to all personnel and expenditure charges.

Lewis

“If any changes are attempted without our full agreement in writing, they will be assessed and as necessary contested and revised,” Lewis wrote in the email, CC’d to his supervisor, John Browse, and Dean Ron Mittelhammer.

Browse forwarded the email to Moyer, who responded saying, “We are aware of [Lewis’] responses and are dealing with them.”

The audit report states that Browse emailed Lewis saying he had been instructed to assign the employees to the grants. The university, in its response to the audit’s finding, stated Lewis did not reply to this email, and therefore the employees’ salaries were charged to the grants on the assumption that Lewis would assign them to work on the grants.

However, Browse’s email is dated June 27. Lewis sent his email instructing CAHNRS not to reassign the employees on June 30, and Moyer responded the same day acknowledging Lewis’ instructions.

Lewis is a regents professor, a title held by just 30 faculty members at any given time. WSU defines this rank as one which requires “attainment of the highest level of professional achievement.” Lewis said he has brought in more than $100 million in grant funding to the university.

The audit report does not mention Lewis’ email. He said the university’s response, which is included in the report, is an attempt to obfuscate and hide the true motives of the improper grant charges.

“The purpose, in my perspective,” he said, “is to try and pretend like everything was so muddy and murky, and nobody knew what was happening.”

Moyer

Neither Moyer nor Phil Weiler, WSU vice president for marketing and communication, could be reached for comment. The university’s response in the audit report contests the audit’s finding that Moyer engaged in improper governmental action.

It agrees the employees should not have been charged to the grants while they were not working on them. However, it argues that Moyer did not instruct personnel to charge the grants improperly, but to assign the employees to work on these grants, so they would deserve payment from this source.

The university’s response states that Lewis had been asked to notify the two employees that their contracts would not be renewed. He did not do this, the response states, and therefore the university had to find a way to fund their salaries. The solution was to assign them to the grants.

In Browse’s previously mentioned email, he wrote that he was told to assign one employee, Diana Bedgar, to a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) grant from July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017, and a second employee, Terri Lincoln, to a Department of Energy (DOE) grant for three months, starting on July 1, 2016, “with anticipated continuation.”

Bedgar received more than $8,200 in compensation and about $3,400 in benefits from the NASA grant, according to the audit report, though she never worked on the grant. In fact, Lewis said, she did not have the qualifications for this work. Between July 1, 2016, and Aug. 15, 2016, Bedgar’s salary was funded entirely by NASA, the report states.

Lincoln’s salary was partially funded by the DOE grant before June 30, 2016, because she did some work on the grant. However, starting on July 1, her salary was funded entirely through the grant, according to the audit report. In total, she received about $3,600 in compensation and about $1,800 in benefits from the grant, the report states.

Browse

Expense forms dated June 28 show Browse signed off on salary charges to the grants for both employees as the principal investigator. Because Browse was not the principal investigator, Lewis said this appears to be falsification of documents.

“This is like taking someone else’s checkbook and signing your name on it,” Lewis said.

When Lewis discovered the charges, he said, he contacted NASA and the DOE to notify them. NASA responded in a letter on Aug. 2, 2016, stating that “any attempt by others, such as university administrators, to place any individuals on this project without your approval, or assign expenditures not for the project, would constitute fraud and/or misuse of competitive federal funds.”

The letter, addressed to Lewis, states further that any changes regarding distribution of the grant funding require “your explicit agreement and direction.”

By mid-August, the report states, the salaries of the two employees were no longer charged improperly to the grants.

However, account balance forms seemingly show the university continued charging the salaries to the grants into October, despite warnings from Lewis and NASA. The forms show seven salary charges for Bedgar between July 19 and Oct. 19, each just over $2,000.

Four of the charges were reversed on Oct. 31, in what Lewis said he sees as an attempt to cover up wrongdoing in the midst of the state audit.

“They didn’t care about what they got from NASA,” he said. “In my opinion, what got them concerned was when it was becoming clear to them that the state auditors were investigating them.”

He said one possibility is that the administrators’ actions were the result of CAHNRS’ financial problems. In an attempt to reduce the college’s debt, he speculated, they moved the employees from state to federal funds.

“They literally didn’t want to pay for them,” he said, “so they pulled this stunt.”

Lewis noted the importance of federal funding to a university, saying issues like this could hurt WSU’s ability to retain grants that pay the salaries of many employees. He added that losing federal funding could also harm the university’s ranking.

Lewis argues the state audit finding, that Moyer improperly authorized the charges, could constitute grant fraud, which Lewis’s legal adviser told him carries a maximum penalty of up to $10,000 and five years in prison.

“He believes he’s got a piggy bank, and he’s found he can’t be moving things around,” Lewis said. “It’s called improper governmental action.”

As for the audit, the university stated in its response to the findings that it would “take this opportunity to ensure employees responsible for grant oversight and management participate in relevant trainings, including responsible conduct and research education for faculty and staff.”

The university’s response also notes the charges have been corrected. The report states the auditor’s office will follow up with the university within a year to “assess whether it took appropriate action to resolve the matter.”

About the Writer
CODY COTTIER, Evergreen reporter

Cody Cottier is a senior communication and philosophy double major from Chimacum.

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.


Email This Story






No P.R. No B.S. No Retreat. Watchdogs since 1895
Audit finds associate dean misused grant funding