Millions Intended for Research Misspent
After a year-long investigation into the epidemiology division of the College of Medicine, UCI’s Internal Audit Services released an interim report to the public on Sept. 28 that suggests, among other things, that the division head misspent over $2.3 million in federal and state funds.
The report said that the epidemiology division head, Hoda Anton-Culver, spent $970,872 to pay administrative and clerical salaries and expenses, and over $1.3 million to a private firm to develop a computer research database that would combine two older information system databases.
However, IAS questions these expenses because it was unable to determine whether these types of expenses were allowed under contracts that the university has with funding agencies regarding acceptable uses of the agencies’ funds.
The report states that Anton-Culver was aware that she did not have a clear funding source when developing the new research database. It also states that Anton-Culver believed funding was justified because the systems are interrelated. However, IAS asked Anton-Culver on many occasions to provide documentation that would support her argument, but IAS ‘has not received such information.’
IAS said in its report that during the course of the investigation, it became aware of contract and grant management issues dating back to 1999. According to the report, ‘the dean of the COM said … the COM had been working with epidemiology over the last five years to address these issues by providing support, training and oversight, but their efforts were met with resistance and at times with hostility.’
A lack of supervision contributed to these millions of dollars being misspent by Anton-Culver and the epidemiology department.
The report says that Anton-Culver was authorized to purchase orders in any amount, and that these purchases never went through the COM’s dean’s office for review. In addition, the epidemiology division avoided normal purchasing procedures by breaking up the purchases into smaller orders so they would not be scrutinized.
IAS also said that Anton-Culver defied orders from the vice chancellor of the Office of Research and Graduate Studies and the dean of COM to stop further development of the information database. After Anton-Culver received orders to cease most operations on Aug. 11, the system became operational on Aug. 16.
The investigation was initiated after a routine audit of the epidemiology division last fall raised questions and complaints from employees in the division. According to the report, six employees claim that they were laid off in retaliation for notifying College of Medicine administrators about suspicious activities in the epidemiology department.
Most of the money used to fund these projects came from the National Cancer Institute and Public Health Institute. Officials from the National Cancer Institute declined to comment on the situation.
Bob Wolfson, Public Health Institute senior vice president for operations, said that the institute is proceeding slowly because the conclusions reached in this interim report are not final. Wolfson also notes that if the funds were in fact misspent, he expects the money the Public Health Institute gave to UCI to be returned to the institute.
‘Both UC Irvine and [Public Health Institute] are still researching the facts, so we’re just going to let the facts dictate our actions,’ Wolfson said. ‘We are reviewing the report and intend to take appropriate actions, so it appears as if our funds were misallocated, and it appears that the appropriate action would be for some or all of those funds to be refunded.’
If the final report does confirm the interim findings, Wolfson said the Public Health Institute would be more cautious in its dealings with UCI.
‘It would cause us to proceed with caution, so it would cause us to make sure that future dealings have the appropriate internal controls, reviews and accountabilities,’ Wolfson said. ‘We would try to hold UC Irvine to acceptable accountability standards.’
A joint statement from the COM and the ORGS explained, ‘The funding agencies ultimately must determine whether funds were appropriately spent on projects approved by the agencies … If requested to do so by funding agencies, [we] will return any money that was determined to be improperly allocated.’
Although the interim report says that funds were misspent, the statement from the COM and the ORGS also noted, ‘The report reveals no indication that the funds in question were spent for personal gain or for any purpose other than advancing the research goals of the division.’
The report also suggested ways the COM can avoid another incident like this. The COM and ORGS responded by saying, ‘Based on preliminary report findings, UCI has identified ways to improve its financial management procedures and several new procedures have already been implemented.’