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So far there is no evidence that someone at Harvard took or was offered a $4000 bribe in return for helping a local subsidiary of the Sanitas Service Corporation to secure a $145,000 contract with the University.
Former officials of Sanitas have charged in unsworn depositions on file in the District Court in Washington, D.C., that Sanitas made the offer as part of an extensive series of illegal bribes, kickbacks and political contributions in the Boston area.
Harvard did have a contract from 1973 to 1975 with Sanitas, but there is nothing in the files of the Buildings and Grounds Central Service Offices to indicate that the contract was not justly awarded to Sanitas--the lowest of seven local bidders for the contract.
Even if the alleged kickback actually took place, it would be very difficult for Harvard to prove, since $4,000 in cash can be easily hidden and would probably not noticeably alter the lifestyle of anyone accepting it.
Unless the former Sanitas officials (who have been charged by the Securities and Exchange Commission with misusing corporate funds and defrauding shareholders) testify under oath that Sanitas paid or approached a specific person at Harvard, it is doubtful that any new information concerning the allegation will surface.
Nonetheless, the bribery charge does raise some serious questions for a major university that contracts to purchase over $20 million worth of goods and services each year. Stephen S.J. Hall, vice president for administration, has attempted to centralize and standardize the processes for awarding major contracts since he took over in 1971.
Before that time, the procedures were very informal and a large number of people were in a position where they could easily and inconspicuously influence the awarding of a contract.
But even with the more formal procedures, the Sanitas allegation suggests that it is still possible for someone to "skim a little off the top" as a result of Harvard's contracting arrangements.
It's not only direct cash payments, which are becoming harder and harder to make, that Harvard should watch for, however. An extra steak for the family from the meat supplier, or some free two-by-fours for the backyard shed, if less serious in degree, still qualify as kickbacks.
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