By VICKI SMITH, Associated Press
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — Federal documents filed by a NASA fraud investigator indicate a former head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the Catholic college in West Virginia where he works conspired for six years to misuse millions of grant dollars from the space agency for personal gain and the school's benefit.
The allegations are contained in an affidavit that an agent in the NASA Office of Inspector General used to obtain search warrants in an active criminal investigation of mine safety expert J. Davitt McAteer and his alma mater and current employer, Wheeling Jesuit University.
Court records show investigators believe McAteer, who has been vice president of the school since 2005, and the school fraudulently billed expenses to federal grant programs or cooperative agreements from 2005 through 2011.
The sworn affidavit by an agent — who works out of the Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt, Md. — said those expenses range from McAteer's salary — which surged from $130,300 in 2006 to $230,659 by 2008 — to cellphones, computers, technical support and salaries for other staff, including a secretary in McAteer's Shepherdstown private law office.
In examining five NASA grants, the agent found the duties and salaries of individuals "did not, in any way, benefit the substantive work being done on the federal award projects."
"The motive for (McAteer's) actions is evidenced by the substantial sum of money (Wheeling Jesuit) improperly received," the agent concluded.
The university may have been complicit in five possible federal crimes: theft of federal funds; major fraud; conspiracy; false claims; and wire fraud, the document said.
McAteer's attorney, Stephen Jory, did not immediately return a message Friday night seeking comment. University spokeswoman Michelle Rejonis said late Friday night that she has not seen the document and could not comment.
"With regards to the investigation, we continue to cooperate with federal authorities. Because the investigation is still ongoing, any further comment would be speculative," Rejonis said.
The investigation has been under way since May 2010, involving the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Inspector General, the Office of Labor, Racketeering and Fraud Investigations, and the National Science Foundation's Office of Inspector General, according to the affidavit.
The document also suggested there's evidence to suggest that MSHA — the agency McAteer ran from 1992 to 2000 — was also defrauded. Among the titles McAteer has held at Wheeling Jesuit was director of the school's Coal Impoundment Project, designed to inform the public of locations of massive coal waste dams.
The affidavit blacks out all names but clearly identifies McAteer as the author of three reports on high-profile coal mine disasters and the book, "Monongah: The Tragic Story of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster, The Worst Industrial Accident in U.S. History." McAteer wrote the book, which was published in 2007.
During his time at the school, McAteer has also led independent investigations into three West Virginia mine disasters: the 2006 Sago Mine explosion that trapped and killed 12 men; the 2006 Alma No. 1 mine fire that killed two men; and the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion, which killed 29.
Among the search warrant requests were "any and all documents" relating to work done on those three reports, including financial documents, travel expense, time cards and interview notes.
The affidavit identifies the university as the institution in Wheeling that was founded in 1954 between the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and the Society of Jesus of the Maryland Province. Wheeling Jesuit University recounts its history the same way on its Web site.
At least twice, the affidavit said, witnesses interviewed for the investigation warned both McAteer and the school that they were breaking the law. A consulting firm hired in 2008 also made similar warnings, the document said.
"We will slowly work on making this right, but we can't afford to do it at this time," McAteer is said to have told top university officials in response to the consulting firm's conclusion, according to the affidavit.
Documents the agent obtained indicate the school's board of directors deliberately circumvented federal spending rules "for the purpose of sustaining ... its general, non-federal program educational areas."