To report or not to report?
August 22, 2017 6:52 AM   Subscribe

I was terminated as a grant-funded Project Coordinator and I'm aware of issues. Help me parse out how serious these issues are, whether they'll effect my own ability to apply for funding in the future, and the pros and cons of reporting these issues to the funding agency.

I'm seeking some advice from those with knowledge of federal grants or those who have worked them regarding ethics and responsibility to report issues.

I realize YANML. I have consulted a lawyer however, they were not able to give advice regarding this issue and 2 other lawyers I contacted said the same. This just isn't an issue any lawyer will be familiar with, I'm afraid.

I was recently terminated from my position as the Grant Project Coordinator for a non-profit organization that had received a federal grant of over $100,000. I wrote the proposal and worked it since its inception. My employment was fully funded by the federal agency. In case it bears mentioning, the prior year I wrote a proposal that was funded under the same agency and worked that project, from start to finish, successfully and without issue.

My termination was the direct result of an issue that arose when the General Manager of the funded organization (who also received some grant funding for the work supposed to have been accomplished by her) sought to defy the rules of the grant and the principle and spirit of our proposal. This issue would have greatly affected the integrity of the work that was being done and further, would have affected the businesses of individuals engaged in the grant work with me. In all actuality, what she sought to do was the exact opposite of what we promised to do in our funded proposal. When I objected, giving reasons and reminding her of the Terms & Conditions of the grant award, I was fired for insubordination. I have dealt with this issue with a lawyer but I still have questions I'm hoping some Mefites can help me answer.

Throughout the grant project period, there were issues that arose and I have been told that the organization is now rescinding the remaining grant money and ending the project early. I cannot say whether this is true or not, however. Since my termination, I have recognized other issues that are truly against the T&C of the program.

My question: since I was let go, what responsibility do I have, ethically, to report this issues of which I am aware? If these issues later come to light with the funding agency, do I risk suspension or debarment because I did not report what I knew? (This is a serious concern as the work I'm continuing to do will depend on grant funding from this specific federal agency.) For clarification, the issues of which I'm aware include: false statements made by the GM to the funding agency, misuse of grant-funded supplies and equipment, improper accounting systems, profits from grant-funded activities not being returned to further grant objectives, and pay to specific employees for work they never completed.

On top of this, my moral dilemma is that reporting these issues could potentially result in the organization having to pay back the entirety of the grant funds which would seriously hinder their ability to keep the doors open. I love this organization, still, AND DO NOT WANT TO ENDANGER IT.

I've been attempting to contact the agency's OIG for weeks now but the line is always busy so seeking clarification from the agency itself has been impossible.

I'm having trouble moving on from this, though I very much want to, without clarification on my responsibilities. I have sought legal advice, which I had hoped would offer clarification, but lawyers are not well-versed in this issue and the fact that I do not want to contribute to a situation that might harm the organization is heavy on my heart. If I don't report and no one is none the wiser, however ethically or morally wrong that may be, I'd prefer that situation over reporting and potentially shutting down a non-profit.

Any help is appreciated. Feel free to memail me if you're more comfortable offering advice through that channel. Thanks in advance, all.
posted by youandiandaflame to Work & Money (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Look up the fraud waste and abuse policies for the grant funder. It's a federal agency, they have them.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:13 AM on August 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

The person to talk to is your program officer (sometimes called a 'cognizant officer', e.g. at the NSF) at the funding agency. "Mandatory reporting" or "Reporting obligations" are key words to use with them. I agree relatively few lawyers will be experts in federal agencies' reporting requirements, though I'm sure there are some out there. But there's one person who you know is an expert, and whose job it is to listen to this kind of stuff as it comes in: the program officer. You probably already know how to contact them.

I picture an email like so: "Dear program officer, as I was the grant coordinator for institution Y that was awarded grant #### from your program at fed group F last year. I am no longer employed by Y, nor am I in contact with them, but I want to make sure that I meet any reporting obligations that I personally have, so that I can continue forward in good standing as I hope to work on F grants in the near future. Can you please point me to information that outlines my reporting obligations with F?"

Honestly, I can't imagine they care about you as a person. If you go to institution Z and apply to the same type of grant from F, they will see this as coming from Z, not you, yandiandaflame. They may indeed not be too happy with Y, or even with the PI/Manager there, but you're just hired help in the eyes of F, and you probably don't even really have a name, just a role with them. So I wouldn't worry too much about this blacklisting you.

You may get better answers if you can tell us the name of the fed body. NSF, NIH, DOE, NEH, NEA, all these groups are actually very different, and I don't think I'd trust experience at the NEA to be good for the NSF, and hence I may be off base in my response which is based on experience with only two of those outfits.

Finally, in my experience, grants are not contracts, and it is par for the course for work to go in a rather different direction than originally planned and proposed. When I just did an annual report on a grant, there was a huge section for reporting changes in plans, research, travel, personnel, etc. Maybe there was some misconduct or violation of terms, but unless you get a clear strong response from F saying that they expect you report to them anything remotely suspicious, I would recommend dropping this and moving forward.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:19 AM on August 22, 2017 [7 favorites]

If these issues later come to light with the funding agency, do I risk suspension or debarment because I did not report what I knew?

I'm confused as to what, exactly, you would be suspended or disbarred from. You were terminated for having brought these issues to light within your organization and it sounds like your GM was signatory or the primary on the application. Who is going to disbar you for those actions and from what exactly will you be disbarred?

Further, I'm not certain what outcome you're hoping to achieve, and that's an important step in determining your action. You want no harm to the organization and/or the agency going after its money even though its been improperly used. It seems like you'd want the GM censured for their actions (as that would fix the problem and avoid harm to the agency) - if so, you should be aimed at the board, not the funder, because they're ultimately who employ the problem here.
posted by notorious medium at 7:20 AM on August 22, 2017 [7 favorites]

This is a bit of an odd question to answer, as we can only answer based on what we know, not the totality of government regulations. That said, I have never heard of such mandatory reporting for grant misuse. Mandatory reporting of any sort is extraordinary - even for child abuse, it is limited to only a small subset of people. All of this changes if you either aid in the crime (which doesn't sound like the case here) or are asked in the course of a criminal investigation (also not the case).

Federal grants are a binding contract between the federal government and the funded organization, not the organization's employees. Unless your organization had some sort of agreement with you mandating you to report the organization's missteps (which seems like quite an odd agreement on their part), you generally have no obligation to the government. Further, the government expects no such obligation - from their perspective, they have nothing to do with you.

Like others here, it's not clear to me what you are trying to accomplish. If you think the behavior of the organization is eggregious, report it, but do so because you view it to be the right thing to do, not because you think you have to. If you feel the behavior is an abberation from the norm due to "one bad apple" and think it's better to ignore it... you will absolutely not be the first person to do so.

Veering even further off topic, I can say that the behavior you've seen happens regularly in government contracts with value in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars and is ignored by the people involved. I don't think you should hold yourself to a higher standard over significantly less money.
posted by saeculorum at 7:29 AM on August 22, 2017

For clarification, the issues of which I'm aware include: false statements made by the GM to the funding agency, misuse of grant-funded supplies and equipment, improper accounting systems, profits from grant-funded activities not being returned to further grant objectives, and pay to specific employees for work they never completed.

IANAL nor am I any sort of expert in whistleblower issues. My concern for you here is that you have stated that there are issues that you are aware of, but you have not stated that you have any evidence that these issues occured.

I work for a government agency (not federal, and not a grant writer), and part of my job involves fraud investigations. This is not a multi-million dollar defense contractor contract (an issue that I do have some background experience with). While $100K is clearly a significant amount for the org you were working with, it's not such a significant amount that the granting agency will throw a full blown investigation at it without any evidence in hand. At best they will perform an audit of the issues that you bring forth, but generally speaking an audit takes at least a couple of months to get scheduled, which leaves plenty of time for your GM to cover her tracks.

I think it's important for you to define for yourself what outcome you are looking for. Do you think the org in general needs better oversight from the granting agency? Any attention could hamper the efforts of the org itself, which you have stated you would like to avoid. Do you want the GM removed from the org, or otherwise tarnished in some way so that she can't do this again? Again, any agency attention to her could tarnish the whole org. It seems to fall more into a missing stair situation.

What you might need to do is take a pass on this incident but learn from it, ie, start documenting any issues you see at future orgs, and stay in good contact with granting officers from the get go so that you can stay ahead of these issues.
posted by vignettist at 8:00 AM on August 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

(Just to clarify, I have definitive proof and documentation of all issues. Also, while the org was technically the recipient, I was the Project Coordinator and that's where my level of concern came from. Given that *I* was the one working with the federal grant administrator at all times, I was concerned I might be on the hook for some of these issues and I would absolutely not put it past the org's GM to lay these issues on me when final reporting is submitted - she has already made false statements to the org's Board and the grant administrator about my work though I can prove these statements were false. The GM had not even read the grant or the Terms & Conditions until the day I was terminated. The funding agency is the USDA, if that helps.

That said, THANK YOU so much for the thoughts here. Probably best to move on and let this go as it seems unlikely to effect my work in the future but I'm still open to hearing further opinions!)
posted by youandiandaflame at 8:41 AM on August 22, 2017

Have you called your state AG's office? They have oversight over charitable boards and management, and could probably provide some guidance.

Beyond that, I agree your best sounding board is the grant program officer. This is rampant, and I applaud you for wanting to speak up, but since you don't want to hurt the organization you should be careful about what you reveal or charge.
posted by Miko at 8:43 AM on August 22, 2017

Yes, you won't be held personally responsible for these issues.
posted by Miko at 8:44 AM on August 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

IANAL, TINLA. Although reading some of the regs is a part of my job, this specific aspect of them is not, so please take this only as a starting point; this is not a comprehensive list of all the regulations that may apply ....

The general USG regulations regarding grants and other assistance awards are found in Title 2 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Subtitle A, OMB guidance, applies to all federal awards. USDA-specific regulations can then be found in Subtitle B, Chapter 400. You might want to especially look at 2 CFR 180 and 2 CFR 200.113. Note that the latter, mandatory disclosures, applies to "non-federal entities," which is defined at 2 CFR 200.69 and does not include individuals.

2 CFR 417.800 talks specifically about what USDA considers as cause for debarment. All of the causes (save the last which just basically says "and anything else we decide is very bad") involve actions, not just knowledge of actions committed by others.

I've been attempting to contact the agency's OIG for weeks
If USDA has an external ombudsman, they may be able to tell you what regulations apply to your situation, though they will probably stop short of providing any opinion on HOW they apply to you specifically.

I'm really confident there are employment lawyers in DC who would have a depth of knowledge in this area, I don't think you should give up on actual legal advice. But I hope this was a little bit helpful.
posted by solotoro at 9:14 AM on August 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

Finally, in my experience, grants are not contracts, and it is par for the course for work to go in a rather different direction than originally planned and proposed.

This is incorrect information - grants ARE legal contracts. Federal agencies have written in some allowance for minor changes to the grant, but most changes require written permission from the Program Officer prior to the change. The Program Officer will require a revised written scope of work and budget prior to granting permission. If in doubt, get permission first or risk violating the conditions of the grant and damaging the organization's reputation and ability to secure grants in the future.

In your situation, I would probably email the Program Officer and let them know you are no longer the project director. If you feel you need to say something about the way the project is being handled, suggest they audit the grant project but let them discover the details for themselves. Give the Program Officer your contact information in case they have questions for you.
posted by summerstorm at 12:20 PM on August 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

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