Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to clarify aspects of the state auditor’s report and Washington State University’s response.
Washington State University has returned about $17,000 to two federal grants after a state audit determined the money had been improperly used to pay the salaries and benefits of two WSU employees.
A spokeswoman for WSU’s agriculture college called the situation an “anomaly.” In its written response to the report, the university also disputes the findings.
The state auditor reviewed a “whistleblower” report made by the researcher involved in the two grants. The auditor refers to that person only as the “principal investigator” in its report.
The audit concluded that James Moyer, associate dean of research at WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences, had directed the salaries of two employees be paid with money from NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy grants, on which they either did not work or worked at a lesser percentage than was charged to the grant.
The research projects involved secondary plant metabolism related to biofuels.
Moyer declined to comment beyond CAHNRS’ response.
In its response to the auditor’s report, the university said it was concerned that “(g)eneral state funds were being improperly charged by the principal (investigator) for work performed by research support personnel on federally sponsored projects.”
The principal investigator was instructed “to assign employees to appropriate sources of funding, meaning work performed on federally sponsored projects should be charged to sponsored funding,” the university stated.
The auditor’s report cited $11,634 from the NASA grant between July 1 and Aug. 15, 2016, had been used to pay one university employee, and $5,419 from the DOE grant was used to pay part of the salary of another employee, also in 2016.
Charges to federal grants for salaries and wages must be based on records that accurately reflect the work performed, according to the auditor’s report. By mid-August, 2016, the employees’ salaries were no longer charged to the grants, according to the report.
“The situation ... was an anomaly resulting from the good faith efforts of college management to move two employees off state-funded accounts that were in deficit,” Marta Coursey, director of communications for CAHNRS, told the Capital Press. “Rather than re-assigning the employees to appropriate grants as instructed, the principal investigator allowed the charges to accrue and then reported them to the state auditor. At no time did college management knowingly authorize or intend for unallowable personnel costs to be charged to the grants, and any unallowable charges would have been corrected through normal university processes.”
The audit report was issued in August. The university responded to Capital Press queries about the report this week.
The employees were ultimately paid using WSU funds, Coursey said.
In reply to WSU’s response, the auditor’s report states that the principal investigator, who was the lead researcher for the grants, was aware he had been directed to move the employees onto the grants and assign them to do grant work, but he said there was no work for them at that time.
“He was surprised when he ‘discovered’ that the employees’ funding had been moved to the grants after he had told his supervisor he had no grant work for them,” the report states. The university administration “assumed the principal (investigator) had done as instructed, but did not verify the employees were working on the grants before (it) directed their salaries to be charged to the grants.”
Coursey said CAHNRS has strong controls in place to ensure proper stewardship of funding, but improvements can be made.
“This audit has provided an opportunity to re-evaluate the quality of education and awareness of grant management responsibility and to whom this training should be directed,” Coursey said.
CAHNRS is also evaluating “some isolated employee performance concerns” and current procedures through internal review. The college will then make detailed recommendations, Coursey said.
The report said the auditor’s office would follow up with the university to assess whether it took appropriate action to resolve the matter. Kathleen Cooper, assistant director of communications at the auditor’s office, said that will likely occur in the summer.