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Harvard To Pay $2.4M Fine

By Alan J. Tabak, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard University and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center have agreed to pay the government over $2.4 million to settle federal allegations that they misused grant money, the U.S. attorney’s office in Massachusetts announced last week.

Although both institutions deny any intentional wrongdoing, Harvard agreed to a $1.3 million fine in the settlement, while Beth Israel footed a $1.08 million bill.

The allegations concerned four National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants, totalling $5.5 million, that were awarded to Harvard from 1994 to 1999. The grants were intended to be used for research on aging at Beth Israel, a Harvard Medical School (HMS) affiliate, HMS Associate Dean for Public Affairs Donald L. Gibbons said.

In August 1999, someone “familiar with the research” approached HMS administrators about possible abuses of the grant money, Gibbons told The Crimson this week. After an initial investigation, Gibbons said HMS then alerted the NIH.

In a prepared statement, Gibbons said HMS subsequently chose to hire outside auditors to examine expenditures from the grants and to report the results to the NIH and to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The government came to believe that $1.9 million that was earmarked for specific researchers on the aging project had instead been illegitimately spent.

In a press release, the government outlined its suspicions of the misuse of money from the largest of the four grants—called a K12 award—on personnel, equipment and research.

The government said grant money was illicitly paid to staff who did not work on the aging project and to others who did work on the project, but did not meet the citizenship requirements of the grant.

The official program announcement for K12 grant applications mandates that all researchers on the project must be U.S. citizens, non-citizen nationals or foreigners lawfully admitted for permanent residence and in possession of a green card.

The United States also said in a press release that grant money was used for equipment and research animals that did not pertain to the aging project.

In addition, the principal investigator of the Beth Israel aging project allegedly accorded herself a salary larger than the maximum outlined by the grant guidelines. At the time, that researcher, Jeanne Wei, was head of the HMS division on aging and of Beth Israel’s division of gerontology.

Wei did not respond to a request for comment.

Wei resigned from her administrative posts in November 1999 when the scandal was first reported to the government, Gibbons told The Crimson.

Gibbons said she remained at HMS as an associate professor until 2002, when her contract expired. She is now the executive vice chair of the geriatrics department at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a press release that similar abuses—with funding provided to scientists ineligible to receive NIH dollars—were committed with monies from the three other grants.

“This settlement should send a message that institutions who accept federal grant money, no matter who they are, must strictly adhere to the terms and conditions of those grants,” U.S. Attorney Michael J. Sullivan said in a statement.

Gibbons said Harvard does not anticipate repercussions when dealing with NIH in the future.

“Even the Feds say the case is closed,” Gibbons said. “They are absolutely happy with our new procedures. They are exceptional.”

HMS created an Office of Research Compliance in late 1999. The Office of Research Compliance now administers training programs for grants administrators, clarifies measures necessary to ensure compliance with grant rules to grant administrators, and generally oversees grant expenditures, according to the statement.

The settlement ended legal investigations of Harvard and Beth Israel, but individuals involved with the alleged misuse of money may still be prosecuted.

Harvard had already paid a separate and additional $850,118 fine in August 2002 in response to the same allegations of misuse of NIH funds. In total, Harvard and Beth Israel have paid a combined $3.25 million to settle the government allegations.

—Staff writer Alan J. Tabak can be reached at tabak@fas.harvard.edu.

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