The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York announced today that the United States filed a civil fraud complaint against Columbia University alleging that the university submitted false claims in connection with federal grants that it received to fund work done by its International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs (“ICAP”). The complaint served as notice of the government’s election to intervene in a relator’s case that alleged that, Columbia University, as the grand administrator on behalf of ICAP, received millions of dollars in federal grants and, pursuant to the rules applicable to such grants, was required to use adequate procedures to verify that the employees had actually performed the work charged to a particular grant. The university, however, while allegedly aware that this verification was not being done, charged federal grants for work not devoted to the grant’s corresponding project.
The qui tam complaint was filed in 2011 by Craig Love, who served as the director of finance at ICAP from 2008 through 2011. The filing of the complaint led to a $9 million settlement under the False Claims Act with Columbia University admitting to the allegations. As part of the settlement, Columbia University admitted that, between 2004 and 2012, it failed to use a suitable means of verifying whether the salary and wage charges that ICAP applied to specific federal grants were based on an employee’s actual effort for that grant. As a result, a number of effort reports submitted to the government contained inaccurate information, leading to the overcharging of federal grants for work that was not allocable to the particular project. The grants are governed by rules that require the grantees to track the work performed by employees and charge grants only for work actually performed as a part of that grant. Columbia University claimed to be complying with these rules by generating effort reports for ICAP’s New York City-based employees purportedly detailing each employee’s distribution of work across federal, state, and private grants, as well as university-sponsored projects. ICAP has close to 200 employees located in New York City.
The problem stemmed from the fact that these reports were not created by or verified by the individuals to whom they applied. Instead, the university’s finance department provided the information for these reports even though the employees of that department had limited or no knowledge as to which grants they actually worked on. The effort reports were certified as correct by the principal investigators on the grants despite the absence of verification. In one instance, an ICAP finance analyst stated that he spent approximately 15% to 20% of his time on the Multi-Country Columbia Antiretroviral Program (“MCAP”) grant in 2010, but his effort was falsely reported as amounting to 85% of his time. Similarly, an ICAP subcontract manager’s effort report indicated that her effort was 100% devoted to MCAP while she actually worked on three other grants, in addition to MCAP, throughout the year. ICAP also charged federal grants for time spent on activities that were not allowed to be charged to the grants, such as time spent on competitive grant proposal writing. One grants manager spent the majority of her time writing competitive grant proposals, but her effort report indicated that all of her time was charged to grants, with as much as 92% of her time charged to MCAP in some years. These problems were further compounded because the principal investigators would routinely certify a significant number of effort reports at a time.
In 2004, President Bush created the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a global HIV/AIDS program, targeting billions of dollars in new funding for the prevention, treatment, and provision of care services in 15 of the most affected countries of the world. That same year, Columbia University received $125 million in MCAP grant funding. The grant represented a five-year cooperative agreement with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for comprehensive AIDS care and treatment in 5 sub-Saharan countries in Africa. After receiving the MCAP grant, Columbia created ICAP in order to provide support and services for HIV prevention worldwide and ultimately brought multiple HIV/AIDS programs under one “umbrella.” Since 2004, Columbia University has obtained over 75 grants from the federal government for HIV- and AIDs-related work performed by ICAP. The program created by Bush was expanded in 2008 under the Tom Lantos and Henry J. Hyde United States Global Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Reauthorization Act.