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Audit finds WSU may have violated federal grant rules

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 21, 2017

 (JEAN SHERRARD)
(JEAN SHERRARD)
Associated Press

PULLMAN – A state audit has found that Washington State University may have violated federal rules when it used about $17,000 from a grant to pay salaries and benefits for two employees who had little to no involvement in the projects.

The Seattle Times reported that the WSU professor who blew the whistle is concerned the school’s grant funding could be in jeopardy.

The issue was raised by Norman Lewis, a professor in WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry.

The auditor’s office found that one employee did no work on the NASA project, but was being paid from that fund. Another employee worked at a lesser percentage than was being charged to the grant.

Officials for Washington State University say the auditor’s report presented “an inaccurate and incomplete context of the situation.”

School officials say Lewis was told that if the two employees weren’t moved to federal grant work they might be laid off.

Lewis was “repeatedly instructed to address the funding concerns but has repeatedly failed to respond and did not take appropriate corrective action,” WSU spokesman Phil Weiler told the newspaper.

Lewis disputed those arguments.

He was granted whistleblower status by the state as part of the investigation, meaning he cannot suffer retaliation for providing information to the auditor.

While the state auditor found that an improper government action took place, it did not find that a possible ethics violation took place, said Kathleen Cooper, spokeswoman for the auditor’s office. In part that is because Lewis did not raise the issue at the time and also because the action didn’t meet the definitions of any of the things that constitute an ethics violation, Cooper said.

However, the State Ethics Board will review the case and could reach a different conclusion, she said.

The $2 million, 3-year grant was awarded by NASA to investigate how genetically modified plants would grow in space, Lewis said. The plants are scheduled to be sent in 2018 to the International Space Station.

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