Reports Detail Misconduct At
Two new reports about the University's Environmental Research Institute (ERI) were issued Thursday. One is from a University committee and pertains to allegations of scientific misconduct, and the other, being released by Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, pertains to allegations regarding the conduct of senior ERI managers.
The UConn faculty committee, called the Ad Hoc Investigative Committee for Alleged Scientific Misconduct at ERI, was created in accordance with standard University policy for investigating allegations of unethical research practices. In its final report, the committee determined there was scientific misconduct, and noted that Jianshi Kang, who managed the volatile organics lab, admitted to inappropriate manipulation of data in testing soil, air, and water samples in the course of work done at ERI's volatile organics labs between January 2000 and April 2002.
In addition, the committee determined that Shili Liu, Kang's supervisor during this period, was negligent in his supervisory responsibilities with respect to this lab.
The University has begun to notify potentially affected grantors and research sponsors of the findings of the scientific misconduct investigation. It has also begun reviewing all grants to ERI, and related reports or articles that may have included questionable data, to determine whether retractions will be required.
The attorney general's report contains several serious findings regarding the performance of George Hoag, the former director of the Environmental Research Institute. The report found that, contrary to explicit UConn policy, Hoag did not secure proper authorization for outside consulting work. It also was found that his consulting activities since 1999 appear to have far exceeded what is allowed by University policy.
Blumenthal's report also indicates that Hoag acted without authorizatio n and approval to redefine his job responsibilities, to relieve himself of overall supervision and accountability for ERI's affairs, and to delegate them to an inadequately credentialed subordinate, Robert Carley, then ERI's associate director.
The University administration now is closely reviewing both reports, to determine what further disciplinary and/or civil actions may be warranted with regard to current and former employees.
"The University is grateful to Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and his staff and to the members of the Ad Hoc Committee for their investigations of these serious issues," said President Philip E. Austin. "The allegations of impropriety at ERI are a cause of deep concern, and we have made it a top priority to respond to the original complaint, identify the problems, correct them, and assure that our control mechanisms work at the maximum level of effectiveness.
"In a university of our size and scope, there is always the possibility that a few misguided individuals may engage in improper behavior," Austin added. "Our responsibility is to take all appropriate steps, swiftly and forthrightly, to address the situation. I speak for my colleagues in expressing our special appreciation to the attorney general for his assistance and support, and for his acknowledgement of our timely and appropriate response."
In the summer of 2002, an anonymous whistleblower complaint was received that contained several serious allegations of unethical research and criminal activity at ERI. UConn empanelled a committee to conduct a preliminary inquiry to determine whether reasonable grounds existed for conducting a more detailed investigation. The committee's recommendation that such an investigation was warranted resulted in the convening of the Ad Hoc Investigative Committee and the report released Thursday.
The UConn Police Department has been leading a criminal investigation, in cooperation with the State's Attorney's Office, U.S. Attorney's Office, U.S. Department of Defense Criminal Investigative Service, Defense Contract Audit Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, U.S. Department of Justice Immigration and Naturalization Service, and UConn Internal Auditing. Additionally, these agencies cooperated closely with a separate investigation conducted by the attorney general's office.
The results of the criminal investigation were reported several months ago. Two University employees, Carley and Liu, were criminally charged (larceny/conspiracy to commit larceny and conspiracy to commit larceny, respectively) for their alleged roles in a fraudulent rent scheme involving participants in ERI's visiting scholars program. Their cases are pending in Rockville Superior Court. There is no new information to report on the status of these criminal cases.
During the course of the ongoing investigations, the University identified several problems at ERI, including deficiencies in the performance of key managers and personnel, inappropriate financial practices, and insufficient research compliance and management.
In response, the University has taken a number of actions to correct the problems, including the appointment of Peter McFadden, a highly respected retired 30-year veteran member of the University's engineering faculty and administrator, as interim director to replace Hoag. Hoag has continued as a faculty member in the School of Engineering. After the attorney general's report is thoroughly reviewed, any additional action with respect to Hoag will be undertaken in accordance with standard University processes.
The University also placed Carley and Liu on administrative leave and did not renew their appointments last July 1. Kang was reassigned to a different job, pending the outcome of the scientific misconduct investigation. Upon learning of the University's intention not to renew his appointment, Kang retired June 1.
The University retained KPMG to comprehensively review ERI's financial and business practices and recommend corrective actions. In addition, University oversight for financial management of all ERI grants and contracts has been strengthened. ERI's record keeping systems have been updated, and the visiting scholar program has been eliminated.
The allegations of scientific misconduct were handled by following the University's "Policy and Procedures for Review of Alleged Unethical Research Practices" and in conformance with U.S. Health and Human Services Office of Research Integrity policy. The two-phased faculty investigation resulted in a finding that Kang engaged in research misconduct.
When charges of scientific misconduct were made, and following receipt of an adverse July 2002 accrediting council report, ERI's quality assurance procedures were examined and found to be inadequate. Changes to practices and procedures were implemented through last spring, and ERI reestablished its research laboratory credentials by successfully completing four independent laboratory review/audits including: the National Coastal Assessment review of organic, nutrient, and inorganic laboratories; the National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Council Review for certification ; the National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program proficiency test; and a Technical Systems Audit done last month by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The University in June empanelled a committee of several of the University's most distinguished past and current research scientists on the Storrs campus to make recommendations this fall on what further actions may be required to strengthen campus-wide compliance and financing of research.
Recently, the University established additional training programs for administrators on research compliance and grants management and distributed pertinent information to all research faculty. This is part of a campus-wide effort during the past year to improve compliance through education and training of all faculty, staff and graduate students.