AP NEWS

UTRGV forced to pay $5M

October 2, 2016 GMT

EDINBURG — The University of Texas Brownsville misused research funds and over reported state benefits — all resulting in the need to reimburse federal and state coffers nearly $5 million, several audits obtained by The Monitor show.

Because UTB has closed as an institution, however, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, which succeeded UTB, made the reimbursements, forcing the new administration to divert critical funding from the fledgling university.

The audits, conducted by the UT System, resulted in the discovery of the misuse of federal grants totaling $1.9 million by the Center for Gravitational Wave Astronomy over a period of six years.

A second audit uncovered $2.9 million in state funds for over reported benefits in the appropriation years of 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

“Both of these issues were brought to our attention out of the close-out activities for UT-Brownsville,” said Guy Bailey, president of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

UTB was dissolved in 2015 along with UT-Pan American in Edinburg, to pave the way for the creation of UTRGV, a university that now encompasses these two campuses and others around the Rio Grande Valley.

UTRGV paid off the debt in full, Bailey said, because it inherited all of UTB’s and UTPA’s assets and assumed full responsibility for its liabilities. But the move was also made to salvage relationships with federal and state funding sources that are essential for future research funding at the new university.

“What we wanted to do is make sure that we paid any obligations out of Brownsville institutional reserves before the dissolution of UT Brownsville on August 31, 2016,” Bailey said.

UTB remained a legal entity throughout the initial year of UTRGV’s takeover since there were pending matters, Bailey said. But this will also affect the financial standing of the new university.

“All of their assets became our assets,” Bailey said. “That’s nearly $5 million less in assets... It makes it difficult to do some things that we wanted to do.”

FEDERAL GRANTS

An audit from the UT System Office of Internal Audits found at least six federal research grants were overcharged for a total of $1,957,547.27 for the partial or full payment of salaries of faculty who were mainly teaching and not conducting research, a critical violation of grant conditions that could have potential impact on future grant considerations.

“Salaries were charged up to 100 percent of the federal grants even though their workload reflected a full teaching load in Physics,” the audit states.

These funds came from research grants awarded to the Center for Gravitation Wave Astronomy by National Aeronautic Space Administration (NASA), the National Science Foundation— two institutions that helped fund the center in 2003— and the Department of Defense.

UTB notified the UT-System of at least three faculty members who were identified as being paid up to 100 percent of their salaries from research funds for multiple years, which was not part of the grant agreement.

“Center for Gravitation Wave Astronomy knowingly overcharged multiple research grants,” states the notification sent by UTB to the UT System Office of General Counsel. The department, referred to by audits as CGWA, was part of a recent national announcement in which gravitational waves had been detected, which is considered a huge scientific advancement in the field of physics.

The investigation revealed CGWA overcharged on six federal research grants from 2009 to 2015 to partially or fully pay the salaries of more than eight faculty members and some students. The investigation also concluded that the head of this department, CGWA Director Mario Diaz, was aware of the overcharges.

Diaz did not immediately respond to several email or telephone messages by The Monitor left on Friday or Saturday seeking comment.

“CGWA was unable to provide any documentation supporting an authorization from NASA that would allow full time faculty position to be fully funded by the grant for three years,” the audit states. “Moreover, it appears based on a May 2014 Memo to Dr. Alan Artibise, UTB Provost, that Dr. Diaz was aware that federal funds were being overcharged for faculty salaries in violation of federal requirements.”

In this memo, included in the audit, Diaz requested the salaries of two faculty members who were in their fourth year of employment and had been hired under a NASA grant and a three-year commitment.

“CGWA requests to contemplate the possibility of partially funding these positions for the current fiscal year,” his memo states.

When asked whether Diaz would keep his job, Bailey said he could not comment on personnel matters, but UT officials are still conducting an investigation and will send UTRGV officials the findings. Only then will any appropriate actions be taken.

After the creation of UTRGV, many administrative roles changed and some officials even retired, Bailey said. His main goal was to move forward and fully implement procedures that prevent these things from happening, especially now that the university is seeking more research funding.

“It was not under UTRGV’s watch,” Bailey said. “It’s important to us that we make sure that we have all of the processes in place so that it doesn’t happen again.”

As far as how this will affect the center, which placed the Valley on the map earlier this year with the first ever detection of gravitational waves, Bailey said, “We have no quibble with the quantity or the quality of the research that we did. We believe it was very high quality research and, of course, the audit doesn’t address that.”

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