Administration

In the NSF's Priciest Grant-Fraud Settlement, Northeastern U. Will Pay $2.7 Million

August 21, 2015

Northeastern University has agreed to pay $2.7 million to cover nine years of mishandling federal research funds, in the largest-ever civil settlement with the National Science Foundation.

The case stems from the management of NSF grant money awarded to Northeastern for work at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, from 2001 to 2010. The work was led by a professor of physics, Stephen ­Reucroft.

Both the NSF and Northeastern declined to discuss the matter in detail. But the university issued a written statement that put the blame largely on Mr. Reucroft, who retired from Northeastern in 2010.

"The conduct in question related to accounting and grant oversight," Northeastern said in a written statement. "The university self-reported the discrepancies to the funding agency, the National Science Foundation, as soon as they were discovered and fully cooperated with the agency’s review."

But the terms of the $2.7-million settlement suggested that Northeastern bore substantial responsibility. According to the agreement, the university failed to provide necessary oversight, failed to pay interest due, paid salaries without required documentation, and paid expense money based on inadequate or fraudulent documentation submitted by Mr. Reucroft.

Northeastern "continued to engage in these practices when it knew or should have known in 2006, if not before, that Professor Reucroft had violated NSF requirements when he submitted fraudulent claims for personal expenses," said the settlement, which was signed by lawyers for Northeastern and by Anita Johnson, an assistant U.S. attorney in Boston.

Altogether the university "approved and disbursed at least 26 advances, totaling approximately $8.4 million in NSF funds, to CERN team accounts without required verification of need and sufficient oversight," the settlement said.

A Failure of Oversight?

Mr. Reucroft, who now assists entrepreneurs as president of a company called ThinkIncubate Inc., said by email from Europe that he had not been contacted by any investigators and could only assume the complaint involved his work on the Compact Muon Solenoid, one of the particle detectors at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

"The CMS construction project was a $20-million award, and there were many of us concerned that NU did not have the resources to handle such a big award," he said. "I guess I had faith in NU."

Mr. Reucroft denied authorizing any improper expenses, and said he has not been contacted since his 2010 retirement by anyone at Northeastern, the NSF, or the U.S. Department of Energy. "I am at a loss to understand it," he said of the complaint and settlement. "I am also a bit surprised that I have not been involved in the process."

It’s not the first controversy stemming from NSF grant awards to Northeastern and Mr. Reucroft for work on the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle smasher, which is known for its role in confirming the existence of the Higgs boson, a lynchpin in scientific understanding of the fundamental structure of matter.

For much of the time period covered by the NSF investigation, Mr. Reucroft battled colleagues who he believes were jealous of his NSF support, which at the time represented the largest award from the agency in Northeastern’s history. Mr. Reucroft received an official reprimand at the time for allegedly not paying enough attention to his teaching, and he fought back, eventually winning about $8,000 in lost salary increases.

University officials rejected the possibility of any connection between that internal turmoil and the just-completed NSF investigation. A Northeastern professor who was part of the complaints against Mr. Reucroft a decade ago said on Thursday that he had been asked by university administrators not to comment on the matter.

Either way, Northeastern said in its statement, the conduct in question related only to accounting and grant oversight. "The government did not question the quality or scientific integrity of the work conducted by Northeastern researchers," the university said.

The NSF’s Office of Inspector General handled the investigation. A spokeswoman with the office said she had no comment on the case, which she described as the OIG’s largest civil investigative recovery of NSF award funds.

Paul Basken covers university research and its intersection with government policy. He can be found on Twitter @pbasken, or reached by email at paul.basken@chronicle.com.