Investigation reported to NIH officials

by V. Paul

The University has notified federal agencies about an ongoing investigation into the research activities of the biomedical institute’s director, officials said Tuesday.
Dennis L. Polla, head of the Biomedical Engineering Institute, has been under investigation since the Department of Audits was notified in February. Since August, the Office of the General Counsel has also investigated the financial irregularities and improper research activities.
Polla has allegedly mismanaged federal research grants and University accounts. He has also been accused of not disclosing potential conflicts of interest such as his outside consulting work.
“Our hope is we will be able to do a prompt, complete review that will satisfy all agencies in the federal government that we have gotten to the bottom of this,” said Mark Rotenberg, the University’s general counsel.
According to a University statement, University auditors started looking into limited areas of Polla’s activities in March. Then on Aug. 26, auditors disclosed their preliminary findings to University President Mark Yudof and his senior officials, who at that point decided to launch a full-fledged investigation, Rotenberg said.
Other University investigators and outside legal counsel have been added to the audit team. Their report is due in mid-December.
Polla’s financial activity is also being reviewed by H. Ted Davis, dean of the Institute of Technology, Rotenberg said.
Polla also allegedly transferred money between and within University accounts and federal grants in violation of University policy.
“If there was a frequency of cross-transferring, that could be problematic,” said Diana Jaeger, director of the NIH’s Office of Policy for Extramural Research Administration. “That could be an indication that the institution has problems allocating money appropriately.”
Polla’s financial activities have since required departmental approval for transactions less than $500, said Christine Maziar, vice president of research.
Larger amounts required approval by the Office of Research and Technology Transfer Administration, which is now divided into the Sponsored Projects Administration and Patent and Technology Marketing.
University officials said they started informing the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. departments of Defense and Justice, the Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation about the internal investigation Friday. The agencies have federal funds invested in Polla’s activities, Rotenberg said.
But when contacted Friday afternoon, NIH officials said they had no knowledge of an ongoing investigation.
The University has been rated by the NIH as an “exceptional organization” since 1995, meaning University researchers are monitored more closely and subject to greater restrictions than researchers at other institutions.
A nine-person team from the institutes will formally visit the University for one week in mid-October to evaluate the University’s grants management systems, said Jaeger.
If the NIH team reports favorably, it could mean lifting the restrictive rating, Jaeger said. The decision to make the formal visit was made before NIH officials knew about the investigation.
During its last visit, NIH officials were encouraged by corrective measures the University had made to its federal grant management system, Jaeger said.
She said the biomedical institute investigation will likely be discussed during the October visit. University officials said they expect the audit to come up during the NIH meeting and have offered to provide periodic updates on the investigation.

V. Paul Virtucio covers courts and welcomes comments at vvirtuci[email protected]. He also can be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3218.