UCSD's ethics conundrum continues as backstage deals loom

Alzheimer's legal settlement pending, physicist's criminal case to follow

As yet another academic scandal emerges at UCSD, court records show that the school is on the verge of cutting a deal with the University of Southern California, sued last summer by UCSD over the departure of Paul Aisen, who took UCSD's lucrative Alzheimer’s research program to the university's bitter Los Angeles rival.

Paul Aisen

Paul Aisen

As previously reported here, after flinging accusations of theft and dishonesty at each other for months, the two institutions agreed to sit down together January 4 at a so-called Early Neutral Evaluation Conference, conducted by federal magistrate judge Jill L. Burkhardt.

With the litigation threatening to expose more embarrassing lab laundry, pressure was reportedly growing on both sides to come up with some sort of accommodation, which, judging from a January 7 order by Burkhardt, is likely to soon be made public.

"The parties shall lodge with the Court a PDF document containing the terms of the agreement reached by the parties during the Early Neutral Evaluation Conference no later than 4:30 PM on Friday, 1/8/2016,” says the instruction by Burkhardt.

In addition, Burkhardt's order says, a motion “containing the terms of the parties' agreement, as well as any other language the parties agree is necessary and appropriate for purposes of the stipulation" is to be filed in the case by the end of Monday, January 11.

The courthouse war of science broke out last July following Aisen's abrupt decampment to USC.

"May 22nd, Dr. Aisen told all the staff at the [Alzheimer's program] he's moving to USC and that they're going to lose their jobs," maintained UCSD's attorney, Dan Sharp.

"And on May 23rd, Dr. Mobley called Dr. Aisen into his office and said that was wrong to do and took away his computer access, because Dr. Mobley was concerned about Dr. Aisen stealing the data, and that's exactly what he did."

USC lawyers countered that its rival had “pressured Dr. Aisen to move [the Alzheimer’s program] to the UCSD campus so that UCSD could collect indirect costs of up to 55 percent, a move which would have crippled the program financially by diverting too much grant funding from research projects into UCSD’s Administration.”

Whether Monday's settlement is intended to mark a final end to the wrangling is yet to be seen.

Meanwhile, UCSD has been confronted with other questions of ethics arising from the guilty plea made by former space physics research professor Homayoun Karimabadi to federal charges of grant fraud.

According to a January 7 news release by the U.S. Attorney's office here, Karimabadi and SciberQuest, Inc., a corporation he operated, received "$6.4 million under 22 separate grants or contracts. Of those, eight were Small Business Innovation Research grants with a value of about $1,760,000."

To obtain the federal support, which was provided by the Air Force, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the National Science Foundation, the professor "made false statements to government officials," the release says.

"Specifically, in award proposals, Dr. Karimabadi failed to disclose all of his and SciberQuest’s current and pending grants or contracts, thereby overstating the time he and SciberQuest could devote to the projects he was applying to receive."

Additionally, "Dr. Karimabadi also falsely certified in [Small Business] award proposals submitted to NASA and USAF that he was primarily employed by SciberQuest. In truth, he was employed full-time at UCSD both at the time of the award submission and during the performance of the grant.”

According to the document, “Dr. Karimabadi and SciberQuest made these false statements to be awarded grants or contracts that they likely would not have received but for the deception. As a result, from 2005 to 2013, Dr. Karimabadi received over $1.9 million in salary from SciberQuest due, in part, to the fraudulently obtained grants or contracts."

NASA inspector general Paul Martin was quoted as saying, "Individuals who fraudulently obtain federal research funds earmarked for small businesses deprive others of an opportunity to pursue meaningful technological discoveries.”

Added U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy, "Dr. Karimabadi took advantage of his trusted positions at SciberQuest and UCSD to deceive government agencies into awarding federal grants or contracts."

She continued, "Federal research funding is an important stimulus to local economies, especially in San Diego, which has a large research university presence. Fraud in the award process threatens to undermine confidence in the continued federal funding of research and innovation.”

Sentencing for SciberQuest is set for March 18, with the firm and Karimabadi agreeing to forfeit $180,000.

In addition, the release says, Karimabadi will be in court January 15, 2016, "for further proceedings to enter a Deferred Prosecution Agreement for his role in the matter."

Explains the document, "A deferred prosecution agreement is an agreement between a criminal defendant and the United States Attorney’s Office wherein the defendant admits to the facts constituting a criminal offense, but the United States agrees to suspend the entry of judgment for a period of time and agrees to dismiss the charges if, during that period, the defendant complies with certain conditions set forth in the agreement."

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