Did Shukla Fudge His Conflict-of-Interest Waiver Form?

Jagadish Shukla (right) is congratulated by colleague Menas Kafatos at a 2005 awards ceremony.

by James A. Bacon

George Mason University climatology professor Jagadish Shukla obtained a waiver from the university’s conflict-of-interest committee for payments received from the federally funded Institute of Global Environment and Society (IGES) in addition to his full-time faculty salary, according to Freedom of Information Act documents acquired by Bacon’s Rebellion.

In his waiver request, Shukla revealed that he had a “personal interest” in the IGES contract with the National Science Foundation to conduct research on the predictability of the Earth’s climate. In the Request for Waiver form he submitted to GMU, he stated, “The Requestor is the President of IGES and serves as Principle Investigator on the GMU portion of the NSF grant and received annual salary in excess of $10,000 from IGES.”

The conflict-of-interest committee reviewed the waiver request on April 11, 2013. According to the committee minutes, “Shukla’s waiver was found acceptable,” pending minor revisions.

What is less clear is whether Shukla revealed that he was receiving not merely “a salary in excess of $10,000” but a salary of $343,000, and whether acknowledgement of that fact would have swayed the committee’s decision.

Shukla attracted widespread notoriety on the Internet when he and co-workers at GMU signed a letter last year urging President Obama to prosecute corporate climate “deniers” under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) law. Global warming skeptics retorted that he should be the one investigated, given his pocketing of hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary from the federally funded IGES while also being paid a full-time GMU salary. Shortly thereafter, Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, began probing the case.

Citing a previously undisclosed GMU audit, Smith released a letter to the National Science Foundation yesterday stating that the audit “appears to reveal” that Shukla had engaged in “double dipping.” Wrote Smith:  “This practice may have violated GMU’s university policy, his employment contract with the university, and Virginia state law.”

(Bacon’s Rebellion requested a copy of the auditor’s report. Zachary Kurz, communications director for the House Committee for Science, Space and Technology said, “We cannot make the audit itself public. … We tried our best to characterize the main findings in Smith’s letter.”)

The fact that Shukla notified GMU of a potential conflict of interest with his work for IGES and received a waiver might seem to exonerate his activities. But the FOIA documents provided by GMU leave questions unanswered.

Shukla’s waiver request form stated that he received annual salary “in excess of $10,000 from IGES.” The waiver-request form did not state that he earned $343,025 in 2013 compensation, nor that IGES paid his wife $141,000 as business manager, nor that the institute paid GMU colleague James Kinter $207,0000 as director, all as reported in IGES’ 990 form. Ten thousand dollars is in the range of part-time employment that would not conflict with Shukla’s university obligations; three-hundred and forty-three thousand dollars, which exceeded his university salary, is not.

So, the question arises whether Shukla submitted deceptively incomplete information by characterizing his compensation from IGES as “in excess of $10,000,” or whether he remedied that deficiency by conveying it verbally or in some other manner. If he conveyed the full amount of his IGES salary, he did not do so during the conflict-of-interest meeting itself — because he did not attend that meeting. How do we know that? Because in an April 30 email to Shukla, committee chair Dade introduced herself and briefed him on their review:

Hello Dr. Shukla,

I chair the Mason COI committee. At the April committee meeting we reviewed your waiver request. The committee had two minor comments…

It is clear from the context of the email that Shukla was not present at the meeting.

Accordingly, I would conjecture, subject to verification, that the committee based its conflict-of-interest decision solely upon the information that Shukla provided in his waiver request form, in which he described his IGES compensation only as “in excess of $10,000.”

Whatever discussion ensued, it could not have been very long. According to the minutes of the April 2013 meeting, the entire meeting lasted only 47 minutes — from 10:30 a.m. to 11:17 a.m. During that time, the committee reviewed its previous minutes, reviewed Shukla’s waiver and found it acceptable with minor revisions, reviewed five other Statement of Financial Interest disclosures, and gave expedited review to 16 more.

One of Dade’s comments addressed a correction to the date of the waiver period, changing 2009 to 2013. The other sought to clarify the statement in Shukla’s waiver request: “The Requestor shall not submit any joint proposals in the future.” Dade asked, “Is that because IGES is joining George Mason University?”

Had the committee been in possession of knowledge that IGES was paying Shukla $343,00, surely it would have generated some time-consuming discussion among the seven committee members and one consultant in attendance, or it would have been alluded to in Dade’s email to Shukla two weeks later.

One possible conclusion to draw from this evidence is that Shukla deliberately obscured his IGES compensation in the conflict-of-interest waiver request form. Another possible conclusion is that committee members knew of the hefty compensation but chose — wink, wink, nod, nod — not make it an issue. Perhaps readers could offer other possible explanations.

Presumably, the GMU auditor was in a position to get answers to the questions raised here. Lamar Smith has forwarded the information to the National Science Foundation for possible action. (See “Dialing up the Heat on Climate Warmist.) In the meantime, Virginians should be asking how GMU intends to handle the situation. The FOIA evidence strongly suggests that either Shukla or the committee members were remiss. If Smith was correct in his paraphrase of the auditor’s findings to the effect that Shukla violated GMU policy five times between 2003 and 2015, the blame probably rests with Shukla. In either case, GMU cannot ignore the issue, and it needs to set the record straight.

Update: According to GMU’s “Outside Employment” policy, GMU employees “may engage in certain employment outside the university, provided that the employee has obtained prior written approval of his or her supervisor and the employee complies with all relevant University policies, including policies regarding conflicts of interest…” Employees must report salary and benefits “that may reasonably be anticipated to exceed $10,000 annually,” as Shukla did. They also must submit “regular and routine reports (monthly or quarterly) from such firm or entity identifying the number of hours and total payment made to the University employee.”

When I stated above that “What is less clear is whether Shukla revealed that he was receiving not merely “a salary in excess of $10,000” but a salary of $343,000, and whether acknowledgement of that fact would have swayed the committee’s decision,” I was unaware of the provisions in GMU’s Outside employment policy requiring Shukla to submit routine reports detailing hours and compensation. There is no reason to believe that Shukla failed to submit such reports, thus no reason to believe that GMU’s conflict-of-interest board was uninformed of his significant additional compensation.

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22 responses to “Did Shukla Fudge His Conflict-of-Interest Waiver Form?

  1. Good reporting Jim.

    While Dr. Shukla’s case certainly raises important issues, a bigger question is the seemingly slack waiver requirements that may be in play for all those other expedited waivers issued the same day in a 47 minute meeting;

    “Whatever discussion ensued, it could not have been very long. According to the minutes of the April 2013 meeting, the entire meeting lasted only 47 minutes — from 10:30 a.m. to 11:17 a.m. During that time, the committee reviewed its previous minutes, reviewed Shukla’s waiver and found it acceptable with minor revisions, reviewed five other Statement of Financial Interest disclosures, and gave expedited review to 16 more.”

    Apparently, if Dr. Shulka”s case is a guide, many hundreds of thousand of dollars being paid via the waivers allowing outside consulting gigs often funded by the taxpayers in addition to their paying very large “teaching” salaries via student tuition that are going through the roof.

    And we are expected to believe that all this education and independent study and consulting “work” that is funneling these great sums of monies to Non-profit institutions and professors is solely in the name of seeking truth in science and teaching it!

    Why is it not evidence of yet more corruption in our public institutions and in these ever more profitable “Non-Profit” industries, used as tax dodge and grant gathering tools to fleece the taxpayers, and soak tuition paying students.

    • Another very big story that does not receive the news coverage that it deserves is how these massive amounts of public monies flood into our institutions, most particularly now our health systems, and our institutions of higher education. These $ trillions (over a trillion alone just in Student loans) give the Federal Government immense new power over these institutions that heretofore were private, or run the states.

      Hence today’s highly politicized ideological agendas driven by our Federal Government exercise enormous power that grows daily over those institutions that use to be run privately or by the states. And also over those who work in those institutions, whether doctors, professors, scientists, or the burgeoning bureaucracies that now rule instead of support those professionals whose livelihood increasingly depends directly on the Federal Government.

      A prime example of the terrible trend is how the Obama administration conflated Title IX to gain practical control over how our schools mandate rules for and regulate the sexual activities of our students in our nations colleges and University, and how those rules are enforced. This intrusion into the daily life of our students has reached a point that it appears quite likely that much of false Rolling Stone scandal has hatched, ginned up and abetted by activities and policies within the Administration of the University of Virginia that was then stumbling all over itself to comply with the dictates of the US department of Education, and White House. This was been discussed earlier on this website.

      Likely, too, much of the same is now going on within the climate studies coming out of our institutions of higher education. For example, with all these large sums of public monies being paid to these professors, what are the odds that they will report and publicize findings contrary to the official line of the White House, the State Department, the EPA? My sense is that there is very little or more likely no chance at all. As proof of that assertion recall how hundreds of universities total folded and collapsed under the pressure of the White after it announced in Jan. and Fed. of 2014 its new Title IX war against its so called rampant rape epidemic on College Campuses, in time to create an issue in 2016 elections.

  2. Dr. Shukla would find a welcome in Charlottesville if he ever lost tenure in NOVA.

  3. Good job! The truth shall set you free!

  4. perhaps an post on the general policy issue of professors in Va colleges engaging in other income-producing activities would be in order.

    and we’d just stay away from what the activities themselves are – in terms of our own politics – just the policy … i.e can you do work for Koch/Exxon or Greenspeace/Climate Action Network?

    what is classified as a “conflict”?

  5. Careful Jim …

    One common aspect of government misdirection is to design forms that nly peripherally ask the question at hand. For example, the Statement of Economic interest form that has to be filed by Virginia General Assembly members has as its highest asset class level – Greater than 250,000.

    Were I in the GA I would note that my house met that level.

    Were Warren Buffet in the GA he would note that his holdings in Berkshire Hathaway met that level.

    Are you sure that “Greater than $10,000” wasn’t the last level on the questionnaire?

  6. someone care to try to define what a “conflict of interest” is for a college professor in terms of earning income beyond their college income?

  7. Excellent piece of reporting.

  8. anyone care to define what conflict of interest is for college professors no matter your own personal politics?

  9. I think the problem is more the time involved in the outside project than the amount of money earned per se. Many professors do consulting work or write books. Some testify as expert witnesses. If the basic instructional and research work is completed to university standards, something that should take most of a 40-hour week, I think academics would have time for some outside work. It also seems reasonable to put in extra time on academics in order to free up a block of time for an outside project.

    I think it would be reasonable for a university to require some form of timekeeping by any employee who is also doing outside work. And a review of these documents that produces something questionable, along with performance feedback from students and colleagues that raises issues, should result in an official investigation.

    Just as citizens are demanding public participation in review of police conduct, so too should there be some public participation in the review process for requests to do outside work.

    • citizens should participate in the policies of Universities and colleges?

      how would that work?

      I agree BTW with your idea that the College should have a stated policy that may well include time-keeping but typically most professional occupations expect you to do the work required for the defined duties and they leave it up to you to find the most efficient and practical ways to accomplish that as long as you do deliver the expected work product.

      a professor, for instance, might grade papers at 3am one day … or on their vacation or business trip, etc… do you really think the general public should be weighing in on these things?

      and again – reading Reeds post downthread – do we really want different policies based on our own politics such that folks who deal with global warming are head to a different standard that suits those who don’t believe it while other rules for work they agree with? what kind of world would that be?

      • You’re missing the point. Any large organization that keeps its governance and review processes internal becomes incestuous. Boards should have some outsiders, be they corporate, nonprofit or educational.

        Virginia law provides for (but does mandate) the appointment of outside individuals with accounting experience to a local government’s audit committee of supervisors, council members or school board members. Good auditing practices would preclude the membership of staff on an audit committee.

        Federal law mandates Metropolitan Planning Organizations have a citizens advisory board. Etc.

        There should be some outside participation in the review of potential double dipping and conflict of interest, at least for big projects or on an audit basis. Similarly, I think there needs some citizen participation in review of controversial conduct.

        Institutions that are public or deal with the public need not only avoid conflicts of interest and double dipping, but also the appearance thereof.

  10. How much of Student tuition payments go into supporting Dr. Shukla?

    How much time does Dr. Shukla spend teaching students who pay Dr. Shukla’s salary?

    How much of taxpayer monies from you and me as citizens are going into Dr. Shukla’s pockets?

    What to we the taxpayers get for our taxpayer monies that go into his pockets? How much do his efforts serve only himself? How much of his efforts serve only the agenda of special interests?

    These are the relevant questions.

    My general sense is that there is a substantial chance that we the taxpayers are getting ripped off on a vast scale, and that the scam grows daily at most of our colleges and universities.

  11. I note also – few folks here have asked these questions about the folks who staff the GMU Mercatus Center.

    Are those folks employees of GMU and abide by GMU policies or what?

    Are they paid with State Money and have pensions and health car paid for by the State?

    • Of course, Mercatus scholars should be held to university policies and guidelines. No one has given them the same scrutiny they gave Shukla, though, because they didn’t go out and petition the Obama administration to pursue their ideological foes with RICO prosecutions. Shukla set himself up.

      • It was sort of an open question. Is the Mercatus center part of GMU and professors funded with tax dollars or is it something else?

        do we have one standard for everyone ?

  12. From the LA Times – UC Davis chancellor apologizes for controversial moonlighting activities

    http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-uc-davis-chancellor-20160304-story.html

    And Democrats are after her. I think I would be too. This smells of conflict of interest.

  13. what is conflict of interest in an Higher Ed Academic realm?

    does it preclude any/all outside relationships or what?

    I’m looking more for rules that apply to all – not ones we support for Dem or GOP … left or right -just rules that apply to all.

    what would they be?

  14. The one thing that’s clear is that the petition Dr. Shukla signed angered a lot of powerful people aligned with the energy extraction industry. Shukla sure learned his lesson about “free” speech.

    It’s disappointing to see James Bacon join that pack with an innuendo-filled column, when a quick Google search would have led him to some answers.
    1. $10k is a reporting threshold in GMU’s policy, that’s why he would state “in excess of $10,000.”

    2.the same policy requires “employee’s supervisor must receive regular and routine reports (monthly or quarterly) from such firm or entity identifying the number of hours and total payment made to the University employee”. Since GMU’s COI enforcers reviewed the case and found no issue, one can reasonably infer that Shukla filed these reports.

    • “Travis”, Thanks for your comment. I was unaware that $10K was a reporting threshold in GMU’s policy, although I suspected it might be the case, and I appreciate your bringing it to my attention.

    • In response to the comment from “Travis,” I am appending the following update to this post a subsequent post on Shukla’s fringe benefits:

      Update: According to GMU’s “Outside Employment” policy, GMU employees “may engage in certain employment outside the university, provided that the employee has obtained prior written approval of his or her supervisor and the employee complies with all relevant University policies, including policies regarding conflicts of interest…” Employees must report salary and benefits “that may reasonably be anticipated to exceed $10,000 annually,” as Shukla did. They also must submit “regular and routine reports (monthly or quarterly) from such firm or entity identifying the number of hours and total payment made to the University employee.”

      When I stated above that “What is less clear is whether Shukla revealed that he was receiving not merely “a salary in excess of $10,000” but a salary of $343,000, and whether acknowledgement of that fact would have swayed the committee’s decision,” I was unaware of the provisions in GMU’s Outside employment policy requiring Shukla to submit routine reports detailing hours and compensation. There is no reason to believe that Shukla failed to submit such reports, thus no reason to believe that GMU’s conflict-of-interest board was uninformed of his significant additional compensation.

      I fly solo. I don’t have editors reading behind me. I count on feedback from readers to point out inaccuracies, omissions of relevant fact or errors in logic in my reporting and analysis. Mr. “Bickle” did readers and me a service by pointing out this information germane to the story.

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