By VICKI SMITH, Associated Press
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — An independent investigation of Wheeling Jesuit University's billing practices for federal grants and programs in 2008 found no violations of laws or regulations, the school's president said Wednesday.
President Rick Beyer said the Board of Trustees voted Wednesday to turn that report over to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Wheeling, adding that the Northern Panhandle Catholic school is cooperating in the investigation.
Federal investigators are looking into whether the university and a vice president, former Mine Safety and Health Administration chief J. Davitt McAteer, conspired to use millions of federal grant and program dollars from NASA and other federal agenices for personal gain.
Some of the allegations against the school and one of the world's foremost experts on mine safety are contained in an affidavit filed by an agent in the NASA Office of Inspector General.
Beyer, who issued a similar statement to the Jesuit community late Wednesday, said the administration could only speculate on the focus of the investigation until an affidavit in the case was unsealed. It then decided to release the 2008 report.
The university's audit committee requested that review by "independent, special counsel experienced in federal grants who had served as general counsel for a major research university," Beyer said.
That person, who was not named in Beyer's statement, "determined the university's cost-allocation method to be permissible under federal regulations and found no improprieties."
The school is "committed to openness in all dealings" and to transparency in its cost-allocation methods, Beyer said. It has enlisted help from federal grant experts and a former United States Attorney to "aid us in full cooperation with this investigation," he added.
The NASA investigator's affidavit said he has evidence to suggest McAteer and entities within the university fraudulently billed expenses to federal grant programs or cooperative agreements from 2005 through 2011.
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.
McAteer's attorney hasn't commented on the allegations, but the affidavit suggests he and the university could face five possible federal crimes — theft of federal funds; major fraud; conspiracy; false claims; and wire fraud.
McAteer also is director of Wheeling Jesuit's National Technology Transfer Center and its Erma Ora Byrd Center for Education Technologies, which is named for the wife of the late longtime U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.
The technology transfer center does work on mine safety and health, missile defense, health technology and small business partnerships. The Center for Educational Technologies has housed the NASA-sponsored "Classroom of the Future" program since 1990. The space agency began construction of the center in 1993 and later helped build the educational technologies center.
Between fiscal years 2000 and 2009, NASA gave Wheeling Jesuit more than $116 million, more than $65 million of that after McAteer took over the school's Sponsored Programs Office in 2005.
A finance manager in that office told the investigator that McAteer created the Combined Cost Management Service Center when he took over. Merging the billing of the two centers allowed him "to control and consolidate all the expenses, regardless of whether such expenses were related to the federal awards."
McAteer was hand-picked by West Virginia's former governor, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, to oversee thorough, independent investigations of three coal mine disasters since 2006. The Sago Mine explosion trapped and killed 12 men in January 2006, while the Alma No. 1 mine fire weeks later killed two more. McAteer also issued the first report on the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion, which killed 29.
The reports he authored are now among the evidence that federal investigators are studying.
McAteer has also been a media commentator on cases ranging from the successful rescue of 33 Chilean gold and copper miners trapped underground for nearly 70 days in 2010 to the collapse of Utah's Crandall Canyon mine and the death of six miners, two rescuers and a federal inspector.
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