Harvard settled with the federal government for $1.3 million over allegations that a former professor at its School of Public Health overcharged federal grants, according to a Monday press release from the Department of Justice.
The settlement was a result of the University’s self-disclosure of the potential overcharges to the government in 2016, according to the release. The DOJ contended that Public Health professor emerita Donna Spiegelman misreported the time and effort spent on grants from the National Institutes of Health and Health Resources and Services Administration, allegedly overcharging grants by $1,359,791 between 2009 and 2014.
Spiegelman and the University, however, both deny intentionally overcharging the government.
Spiegelman contends that Harvard never informed her it would settle with the government, according to an emailed statement provided by her lawyer, Harvard Law School professor Jeannie Suk Gersen.
“Dr. Spiegelman would never have agreed to any settlement because she and her team did nothing wrong,” Gersen wrote. “Because she was not accused of wrongdoing, Dr. Spiegelman was never named as a party to any legal claim by the government or by Harvard.”
The government alleged Spiegelman and her team inappropriately charged their time and effort by evenly distributing their time across all grants for which they provided statistical support without accurately accounting for the time they actually spent on particular grants.
Gersen wrote that Spiegelman used those timekeeping practices with the approval of the School of Public Health.
She wrote that Spiegelman’s team simultaneously supported work on a large number of grants across laboratories, making it impossible to separate individual contributions. As a result, the School of Public Health approved of her practice of evenly dividing time across relevant grants for years.
“This was always undertaken transparently and forthrightly,” Gersen wrote. “At all times, she used effort-reporting practices that she understood, with Harvard’s support, to be permissible.”
Gersen added that Spiegelman “urged” the school’s administration for years to ensure its reporting practices align with the NIH’s, but her proposals were ignored.
“With this matter, Harvard has appallingly attempted to scapegoat Dr. Spiegelman for the well-known problems of mismanagement at the Public Health School,” Gerson wrote.
School of Public Health Dean Michelle A. Williams wrote in a statement posted to the school’s website Monday that Harvard self-reported the alleged overcharging following an internal investigation.
“While neither Harvard University nor Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health admitted any liability, the University’s investigation identified effort reporting discrepancies for Professor Spiegelman and members of her research group that resulted in charges to multiple NIH awards that could not be fully documented,” Williams wrote. “As a result, the University proposed refunding $1,359,791 in salary costs to the government and the government agreed to the proposed repayment.”
“It is important to note that while this internal review identified inaccuracies in the management of time and effort reporting, the completion of the research aims and the quality of the research findings were not disputed,” she added.
The DOJ argued Harvard administrators should have known about the alleged bookkeeping errors sooner.
“HSPH did not timely review Professor Spiegelman’s historical timekeeping to determine whether she and her team had overcharged grants, despite questions being raised for several years about these timekeeping practices,” the press release reads.
Nevertheless, federal authorities “commended” Harvard for its self-disclosure and cooperation.
“It disclosed its findings, and worked cooperatively to explain the overcharges. In addition, Harvard has put in place additional internal controls and safeguards aimed at preventing overcharges from occurring in the future,” the press release reads.
—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.
—Staff writer Kevin R. Chen can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @kchenx.