Boston Strong news – Boston, MA: US DOJ Boston reports 4.27.2020.

Harvard University has agreed to pay $1,359,791 to resolve allegations that Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH) overcharged certain grants funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA). This settlement resulted from Harvard’s self-disclosure of issues that it identified on NIH and HRSA grants by a particular professor and her team between at least 2009 and 2014.

Colleges and universities receiving federal grants are required to accurately track their time and effort and only charge grants for time and effort that employees spent working on those grants. Overstating time and effort spent on grants can result in awarding agencies (in this case NIH and HRSA) paying more than is justified.

The government contends that the HSPH professor, Donna Spiegelman, and her team overstated the time and effort spent working on certain NIH grants for which they provided support (and where they were not principal investigators or key personnel). The overcharges were associated with statistical analysis support that the professor and her team provided to other HSPH professors on grant-related research. The government alleges that Professor 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. The government further alleges that Professor Spiegelman overstated a portion of her time and effort on a HRSA-funded President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (“PEPFAR”) grant, on which she was key personnel. As a result, between 2009 and 2014, Professor Spiegelman and her team allegedly overcharged certain NIH and HRSA grants by approximately $1,359,791.

This settlement also resolves allegations that HSPH knew or should have known that the manner in which Professor Spiegelman, and those working under her direction, were charging time and effort had resulted in or would result in overcharges to these NIH grants.  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.

“As this resolution shows, this Office will continue to examine whether colleges and universities, and their professors, are appropriately using government funding,” said United States Attorney Andrew E. Lelling. “Grant fraud wastes scarce government resources and limits the availability of funding for other research. We commend Harvard for itself disclosing the alleged overcharges at the School of Public Health and for taking steps to prevent future recurrences.”

“Institutions that receive government-funded research grants have an obligation to the American taxpayer to accurately account for their use of those funds,” said Phillip Coyne, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Inspector General. “This settlement demonstrates OIG’s commitment to ensuring that taxpayer dollars are not wasted, and that organizations that receive these funds are truthful in their dealings with federal agencies like the NIH and HRSA”

Since Harvard disclosed these potential overcharges to NIH and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2016, it investigated the potential overcharges by the professor and others at HSPH, 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. 

United States Attorney Lelling and HHS OIG SAC Coyne made the announcement today. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Brian M. LaMacchia and Jessica J. Weber of Lelling’s Affirmative Litigation Unit handled the matter.