Harvard to Pay $1.3 Million to Settle Federal Grant Fraud Claims

April 29, 2020 Updated: April 29, 2020

Harvard University has agreed to pay more than $1.3 million to resolve allegations that a former faculty member was overcharging federal grants, the Justice Department announced Monday.

Donna Spiegelman, a professor of epidemiologic methods at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, reportedly overcharged for grants funded by both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA), the U.S. Attorney Andrew Lellings’s office said in a statement.

According to the Justice Department, Spiegelman and her team overstated how long they spent working on certain NIH grants for which they were provided support. Instead of accurately accounting for the time they actually spent on those grants, as required by federal law, Spiegelman and her team allegedly evenly distributed their time across all grants, overcharging the government by approximately $1,359,791 between 2009 to 2014.

“Colleges and universities receiving federal grants are required to accurately track their time and effort and only charge grants for time and effort that employees spent working on those grants,” Lelling’s office said in the statement. “Overstating time and effort spent on grants can result in awarding agencies paying more than is justified.”

The settlement would also resolve allegations that the Chan School knew or should have known that Spiegelman’s practices would cause overcharges to NIH grants. The Chan School did not conduct a “timely review” of Spiegelman’s historical timekeeping, despite questions being raised for several years about her potential overcharges.

Lelling said Harvard self-investigated and disclosed the case to both the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s Office and the NIH in 2016, and worked “cooperatively” to explain the overcharges. The university also put additional internal controls and safeguards to protect against future fraud.

“While neither Harvard University nor Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health admitted any liability, the University’s investigation identified effort reporting discrepancies for Professor Spiegelman and members of her research group that resulted in charges to multiple NIH awards that could not be fully documented,” Michelle A. Williams, dean of the faculty at the Chan School, wrote in a statement. “As a result, the University proposed refunding $1,359,791 in salary costs to the government and the government agreed to the proposed repayment.”

Spiegelman, who is now a faculty member at Yale School of Medicine, said in a statement released to The Boston Globe through her attorney that Harvard didn’t consult her before agreeing to the settlement. She also denied any wrongdoing.