A former research scientist at South Carolina State University said he was fired last week after raising concerns about scientific grant money being diverted to a little-known foundation run by his boss at the Orangeburg school.
University officials said Dr. Kenneth Lewis’ allegations are the claims of a disgruntled ex-employee and lack merit.
Still, the allegations heap more suspicion on a school already mired in controversy following a federal corruption probe that has so far netted two former university officials and two of their business associates.
Lewis said school officials gave him the ax without explanation March 18 after he “discovered and exposed unethical practices” surrounding the handling of nearly $200,000 in grant money destined for nuclear forensic research.
Lewis said John Rosenthall, his boss and vice president for research and economic development, tried to have the grant money funneled through the South Carolina State University Research and Development Foundation rather than university accounts, as is normally done. Rosenthall is listed as president of the foundation, which has a mailing address in Washington, D.C.
The move is unusual and significant, Lewis said, because the private foundation stood to collect 30 percent of the grant for overhead and expenses — money that would otherwise go to the publicly funded university.
“As I started pulling string, I started getting closer to the truth,” Lewis said. “What I saw was a clear conflict of interest. ... I just felt it was wrong and unethical to do that.”
Lewis said Rosenthall quickly abandoned the plan after Lewis’ concerns prompted the university’s board of trustees to begin asking questions. But Lewis said he lost his job as a result. He has since taken his concerns to the FBI and State Law Enforcement Division.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office wouldn’t say Monday whether federal authorities are looking into Lewis’ claims. SLED said it has no investigation under way.
University officials said Lewis has it all wrong. They would not discuss the reasons for his termination but said it had nothing to do with his allegations. They also said that Rosenthall has done nothing wrong and that not a dime of grant money was diverted anywhere.
“There is no truth to any allegation he has raised. None whatsoever,” Rosenthall said. “We have done everything properly, above-board, and have been fully transparent.”
Overseeing this grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is the S.C. Universities Research and Education Foundation, a group formed by four Palmetto State colleges to promote university-based research and education programs in science and engineering. The three-year grant is expected to bring up to $600,000 to the school, with about a third of that amount coming in the first year, officials said.
Craig Williamson, SCUREF’s director, described Lewis as a brilliant scientist who has done much for his students, but he said Lewis’ concerns are off-base in this instance.
Williamson said Rosenthall was trying to set up a more flexible and cost-effective way for managing the funds, similar to what is done at other major research institutions.
“I didn’t view any improprieties on anybody’s part,” he said. “There wasn’t anything there.”
Still, the university’s board of trustees raised concerns about the foundation at its Feb. 21 meeting and plan to take up the issue again next month. Board Chairman Walter Tobin said the arrangement and Lewis’ firing deserve more scrutiny.
“It concerns me very much,” he said.
Lewis first came to S.C. State in 2004 from the National Nuclear Security Administration’s research complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He became dean of the school’s College of Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology and established the first accredited nuclear engineering program at a historically black university. He also pulled in more than $11 million in grants over about six and a half years.
Lewis resigned in 2011, he said, after then-president George Cooper, who had a contentious relationship with faculty, demoted him from dean to a faculty member.
Lewis said interim president Cynthia Warrick recruited him to return to the school last year. He agreed to her offer, hoping to build on his previous work and secure scholarship funding for deserving students, a cause he has long championed. He was hired in November to work as a research scientist and bolster the school’s problem-plagued James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center.
Lewis, however, said he grew suspicious after promised office space didn’t materialize and university officials informed him he would be paid thousands of dollars less than he was initially promised. Then, his paychecks stopped entirely and he wasn’t paid for his work for more than a month this year, he said.
Lewis said Rosenthall blamed delays in the grant money flowing down. But Lewis said he learned the funding agency had already sent a check to the South Carolina State University Research and Development Foundation, an organization created by trustees in 2004-05 but never activated.
He also learned that the foundation was using a Washington, D.C., address shared by Environmental Justice Conference Inc., a group that Rosenthall oversees.
Lewis said he discovered all federal research grants to the school would soon flow through the foundation. But when Lewis tried to learn more about its workings, Rosenthall scolded him and shut him down, he said.
“THIS WHOLE THING IS NOT PASSING THE SMELL TEST!” Lewis wrote in a Feb. 12 email to SCUREF’s Williamson.
A different view
Rosenthall said there was nothing nefarious about the plan. He had been told informally by trustees to look into reactivating the foundation to seek out federal grants and bring more money to the school to benefit students, he said.
Rosenthall said the Washington address where the check was sent is an office suite the university uses on occasion for meetings and efforts to secure federal Department of Defense grants. The school’s attorney also said that was the case.
“We pay no rent on it, there’s nothing there,” Rosenthall said. “We just pay for it when we need it.”
Williamson, from the funding agency, said he saw no problem with the foundation concept. Most major research institutions set up foundations to receive grant money because the approach is more flexible and lowers overhead costs, allowing more funds to reach students, he said.
The plan bogged down, however, because the university’s foundation still had to obtain federal nonprofit status and reach a formal understanding with the school defining their respective responsibilities, school officials said.
That’s why the funds remain in limbo and in the hands of Williamson’s agency, Rosenthall said. None of the grant has been spent, he said.
As for Lewis’ salary issues, Rosenthall said he was promised pay only for a contract running between Nov. 1 and Dec. 31. He was then expected to generate grant funds that would cover his pay.
Lewis disputed that, saying he was promised eight months of pay while he sought grant funds.
“They can say what they want,” he said. “I’m not disgruntled. I really didn’t need the job. I just went back to help out.”
Diane Knich contributed to this report. Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556 or Twitter.com/glennsmith5.