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Settlement with feds includes increased compliance procedures

by Karen Grava - January 17, 2006

The University has reached a settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency arising from issues related to past research practices at the Environmental Research Institute and the Booth Research Center.

The settlement includes a payment of $2.5 million for overcharges on research contracts during the period July 1997 to October 2004 and an expanded compliance program to ensure that federal funds are spent appropriately.

As part of the settlement, the University has agreed to maintain for at least five years a comprehensive compliance program to ensure the appropriate use of federal funds. The agreement calls for a number of compliance measures, including annual training for faculty involved in research and annual audits of each academic department, cost recovery center, or office that receives or has oversight of federal grants and contracts.

UConn already strengthened its research oversight by establishing in late 2004 the Office of Audit, Compliance, and Ethics. The office will oversee the audits and training program specified in the settlement.

The University cooperated with the federal government to reach the settlement. While admitting no wrongdoing, the University settled the case to avoid lengthy and costly litigation and to protect its ability to compete for federal grants, said Provost Peter J. Nicholls.

The settlement, reached through negotiations with the U.S. Attorney for the District of Connecticut, resulted from an audit requested by the University after a whistleblower reported problems at the Environmental Research Institute. The University reported the problems immediately to the federal government, and both the University and several federal agencies began looking into the allegations in September 2002. At UConn’s request, the Booth Research Center was included in the investigation.

“We have been working to resolve these problems for many months,” said Nicholls. “We need to bring this chapter to a close, to maintain our strengthened oversight procedures, and to focus our efforts on bringing the University’s research program to the highest nationally and internationally competitive level.”

Funds to cover the settlement costs will come from existing balances in operating and sponsored research funds. The funds would have been used to support research at the Storrs and regional campuses.

Later this semester, the University’s Board of Trustees will consider a revised ethics statement, code of conduct, and research compliance agreements that outline for employees what is expected of them. Employees will have to certify that they do not have conflicts of interest and that they are aware of their roles and responsibilities with respect to federal grants and contracts.

The University will also establish a confidential disclosure program enabling employees to disclose anonymously any practices or billing procedures they feel are inappropriate. Such disclosures will be made to the University’s chief compliance officer, Rachel Rubin.

The UConn settlement covers research done not only for the EPA but also for the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Energy, the Interior, Transportation, and Health and Human Services, including the National Institutes of Health, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the National Science Foundation.

Other universities that have reached similar settlement and compliance agreements with the federal government include UMass, Manhattan College, Brown, Johns Hopkins University, Duke, and Northwestern University.

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