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Harvard to pay $1.4m to settle claims researchers overcharged US grants

Harvard University has agreed to pay nearly $1.4 million to settle claims that a research team at its T.H. Chan School of Public Health overcharged the US government for its work on federal grants.

A team led by former professor Donna Spiegelman allegedly overcharged the government $1,359,791 between 2009 and 2014 by overstating the time and effort members put into projects funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Health Resources & Services Administration, according to a statement from the office of the US attorney for Massachusetts.

US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling said the case, settled in the US District Court for Massachusetts, shows that his office serves as a watchdog for how colleges and universities spend government money.

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“Grant fraud wastes scarce government resources and limits the availability of funding for other research," Lelling said in the statement.

He thanked Harvard for identifying and disclosing the billing issues to the government in 2016. Harvard conducted its own investigation of the overcharges and shared its findings with the government, according to the statement. Harvard has also enacted new internal processes to prevent such overcharges in the future.

Spiegelman, in a statement released through her attorney, said Harvard hadn’t consulted her before agreeing to a settlement, and she never would have agreed to one “because she and her team did nothing wrong.” She has never been named as a party in the case or asked to return any money, according to the statement.

The statement from lawyer Jeannie Suk Gersen said Spiegelman’s team provided statistical analysis on a variety of closely related projects and it was impossible to divide their labor neatly among the various projects. So, Gersen said, “the School of Public Health approved, for many years, a system of evenly distributing Dr. Spiegelman’s team’s effort across all the relevant grants benefiting in the same way from the effort.”

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Gersen said Spiegelman had “urged the school’s administration to resolve concerns about this system and to ensure that the effort-reporting practices were in line with the NIH’s expectations, but her proposals to that end were ignored by the administration.”

“At no point has there been any suggestion that Dr. Spiegelman’s group intentionally misreported effort to the government or intentionally violated any billing procedures,” she said.

Michelle A. Williams, dean of the faculty at the Chan School, said in a statement to the Chan School community on Monday night that Spiegelman had left the school in 2018. Williams said the blame for the misreporting belongs on Spiegelman’s shoulders.

“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 said

In this case, according to the US attorney’s office, the Chan School initially did not review time sheets from Spiegelman’s team in a timely manner, “despite questions being raised for several years about these timekeeping practices.”

Spiegelman and her team allegedly exaggerated their work on 25 projects funded by the National Institutes of Health for which they were not principal investigators or key personnel, the US attorney’s office said.

“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 US attorney’s office said.

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Spiegelman also allegedly overstated how much time and effort she had put into her work on the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, funded by the Health Resources & Services Administration, for which she was considered key personnel, according to the US attorney’s office.

Spiegelman “did not have documentation sufficient to show what work she completed to justify the salary costs that she charged to the PEPFAR grant,” according to the settlement agreement.

Harvard agreed to pay restitution of the full amount allegedly over-billed by Spiegelman, plus interest,

“Institutions that receive government-funded research grants have an obligation to the American taxpayer to accurately account for their use of those funds,” Phillip Coyne, special agent in charge of the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General, said in the statement.


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.