After Investigation Finds ‘Mismanagement’ UT Austin Suspends PI, Repays NSF $1.3M

Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA)
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Health Care Compliance Association (HCCA)

Report on Research Compliance 18, no. 10 (October, 2021)

A University of Texas at Austin principal investigator (PI) who, in the words of the National Science Foundation Office of Inspector General (OIG), “generally mismanaged funds” from four NSF awards, was suspended for a year without pay, among other sanctions, but he apparently kept his job, RRC has learned.

For its part, UT Austin repaid NSF $1,336,625.20, which was the full amount of the PI’s awards at issue; the PI also made some contribution toward the repayment. Details of the repayment and disciplinary actions, which occurred sometime last fall, have not previously been public. RRC inquired about the situation after seeing a mention of it in OIG’s most recent semiannual report to Congress, which covers the period from Oct. 1, 2020, to March 31.[1]

RRC was able to piece together some facts about the mismanagement through documents OIG provided in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, but the identity of the PI remains unknown. UT Austin gave RRC limited answers to questions about the situation. Still, the scenario provides a rare look into how at least one university punished but yet still retained an arguably troubled PI, and the repercussions for the institution.

OIG provided RRC with a closeout memorandum for case number 1-20-0073-O, which contains no identifying details but which OIG said concerns the UT Austin situation. It also sent RRC a copy of a partially redacted, single-page letter that UT Austin’s Office of Sponsored Projects sent to OIG. The sender’s name, for example, is redacted, as are the award numbers and the name of the PI. The letter was sent sometime in 2020; the month and date were redacted.

The case, and associated repayment, are the result of a self-disclosure by UT Austin to OIG.

In the semiannual report, OIG related that a university, now known to be UT Austin, conducted an internal investigation “involving a PI who failed to consistently report participants to NSF and verify and document participant eligibility.”

In their letter, UT Austin officials said they began an investigation of the PI after the university’s “Office of Internal Audit was notified of a potential misuse of federal funds. This notification spurred the investigation that spanned over many weeks” and involved four awards. UT Austin told OIG that investigators’ findings of “misuse of funds” included:

  • “Mentors were paid using ‘participant support costs’

  • “Participants were not consistently tracked/reported to NSF

  • “Participant eligibility was not consistently verified/documented

  • “Ineligible participants were paid.”

Additional details about what the PI did are contained in the closeout memorandum, including that he “generally mismanaged funds, did not complete adequate reports, and inappropriately paid individuals for work outside of summer dates and individuals who were not citizens of the United States, in violation of the program’s requirements,” according to the OIG memorandum.

This memorandum also stated that UT Austin required the PI to reimburse the university “one-third of the identified misappropriated funds.” None of the documents identified the dollar amount of misappropriated funds, only the total amount of the four awards at issue.

In its letter to OIG that was shared with RRC, UT Austin said it took nine disciplinary actions against the PI. Two of the nine actions were fully redacted; others were partially redacted.

In addition to making the one-third repayment and being suspended without pay for one year, the PI, according to the unredacted portions of UT Austin’s letter to NSF:

  • Was issued a letter of reprimand.

  • Lost his endowment (no amount was specified).

  • Had his compensation reduced (no details were provided).

  • Was declared ineligible to “serve as a PI for any new proposals for at least three years.”

  • Had to “appoint [a] PI with fiduciary responsibilities for all existing grants.” No information about how many other grants he had or their amounts was provided.

Not mentioned in the letter but included in the semiannual report is that the PI was also required to complete research integrity training.

The author of the UT Austin letter to OIG stated that the institution is “a recipient of extensive federal research funding” and that “we take our responsibilities related to grant compliance very seriously.” The author also said the problems with this PI appeared to be rare, if not unique.

“In addition to this audit that was a result of a notification, we have proactively conducted an audit of all [redacted; may be the PI’s name] awards to confirm that the processes and policies in place are ensuring compliance with federal regulations and the safeguarding of federal funds. Our audit results have indicated that this particular situation was an isolated incident related to [redacted] and not a reflection of failed processes,” the letter said.

After UT Austin’s self-disclosure, agency officials wrote in the semiannual report, OIG “reviewed the university’s investigative report and accepted its conclusions.”

UT Austin did not respond to most of the questions RRC asked about this situation and provided a statement, which repeated some of the thoughts from the letter to OIG. It did disclose that problems first arose in March 2019, after which officials “immediately conducted a full and thorough internal audit. The audit found noncompliance and, as a result, the university refunded the full amount of the grant (sic). Other similar awards were also audited, and no further issues of noncompliance were found,” UT Austin told RRC.

Officials added that they “take our relationships with the funding agencies seriously, and if we find any issues, we let the agencies know right away and address them to the fullest extent possible. Educating faculty about research compliance is equally important, and the university continues to improve efforts to build greater policy awareness and adherence.”

UT Austin would not identify the PI so he could not be contacted for comment. UT Austin also did not address why the PI wasn’t terminated, given the seriousness of the issues. RRC also had asked what steps UT Austin took to prevent a similar situation and what it had learned from the experience that it could share with others.

OIG’s closeout memorandum noted that, “based on potential systemic issues identified, we referred the matter to our Office of Audits for further review of awards to this university.” UT Austin also did not answer RRC’s question as to the status of potential additional reviews by OIG.

In its FOIA request, RRC also sought documents from NSF or OIG “regarding any sanctions against the university itself.”

No such records could be located, OIG’s FOIA office said.

1 National Science Foundation Office of Inspector General, Semiannual Report to Congress: October 1, 2020 – March 31, 2021, NSF-OIG-SAR-64, https://bit.ly/36NMPuZ.

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