UH probes professor’s high-dollar expense reports

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by Jeremy Rogalski / KHOU 11 News I-Team

khou.com

Posted on October 3, 2012 at 2:04 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 11:23 AM

HOUSTON—The University of Houston is investigating a physics professor for lavish spending habits that include first-class travel and $500 MontBlanc pens, the I-Team has learned.

A review of expense vouchers shows Dr. Arthur Weglein lives the high life when university funds are covering the bill. Yet the professor claims it’s all perfectly OK.

“I do things that are appropriate and serve this university,” Dr. Weglein said.

But serving the university means $500 a night hotels when the professor travels. Folios range from $530 nightly charges at the Four Seasons in Austin, $535 at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, and $567 at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco.

And while in San Francisco, Dr. Weglein rented luxury vehicles, such as a Land Rover or Audi A6 Quattro, to “navigate the steep hills.” The average price tag is about $180 a day.

When doing research abroad, Dr. Weglein must fly first class because “he suffers from back pain,” according to a doctor’s note.

“What that spells is excess, a vision of grandeur,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, State Director of the nonprofit watchdog group Public Citizen.

“It’s need versus greed,” Smith said. “It’s a professor living a rock star life at the expense of the University of Houston and its donors.”

Another expense was for the Creme de la Crème of pens — the Mont Blanc.

Dr. Weglein purchased $8,000 worth over the years. He said most were gifts for Ph.D. graduates. But records show others were for “computation by hand written derivations.”

Smith: “The answer doesn’t come out any different whether you (are) using a $500 pen or a 29-cent pen from the drug store.”

I-Team: “The message being sent here is what?”

Smith: “Is that we have spent money lavishly and without control.”

The reaction on campus?

“Wow! What else was missed out on because of this extravagance?” said student Nikki Cox.

“We’re all struggling to buy books and stuff and that’s what they’re spending university funds on?” questioned student Carlee Holzhalb.

“I think the dumbest thing of all is the person who’s authorizing this,” said student Alex Caballero.

So the I-Team went to UH Provost Dr. John Antel to ask questions.

I-Team: “What’s going on with the MontBlanc pens?”

Dr. Antel: “Actually, that’s enough concern for us that there is an ongoing investigation about it.”

But what about the other expenses? Some, like the $567 San Francisco hotel, even UH itself called “extravagant” in e-mails from the Accounts Payable Department.

I-Team: “You have someone red-flagging the purchase, but it sails right on through.”

Dr. Antel: “It wouldn’t anymore.”

But if you ask Dr. Weglein, it’s all appropriate and justified.

“I’m not living high on the hog,” he said. “Our funds do not come from tuition. They do not come from federal or state funds.”

Dr. Weglein said the majority come from the private sector, mostly big oil companies, which pump big bucks into the University for a research program that Dr. Weglein runs. It’s called the Mission-Oriented Seismic Research Program, an academic and petroleum industry consortium that develops new oil drilling strategies in deepwater conditions.

But does the origin of the money matter?

I-Team: “Is the university saying that, 'Oh, this is corporate money therefore it’s OK?'”

Dr. Antel: “No.”

In fact, the provost said under current policy, any money that crosses the university’s books must be spent under tight new restrictions.

But one thing that isn’t changing is the cap on all the wining and dining the professor does. One of his favorite spots is Fogo de Chao, which charges $50 a plate, but the professor doesn’t call it fancy.

Dr. Weglein: “It’s a churrascaria, it’s not a steakhouse.”

I-Team: “C’mon now professor.”

Dr. Weglein: “C’mon now Jeremy.”

I-Team: “C’mon.”

Dr. Weglein: “C’mon. Where are you coming?”

The receipts have been coming in at $3,000, $5,000, even more than $8,000 for a group of 70. In fact, over the past eight years, Dr. Weglein has charged up more than $26,000 at Fogo de Chao.

The justification? Dr. Weglein repeatedly wrote: “it all “enhances the research.”

I-Team: “Do you think this is the best way to spend money for this research program?”

Dr. Weglein: “Yes.”

I-Team: “You’re comfortable with that?”

Dr. Weglein: “I’m absolutely comfortable.”

I-Team:  “Or is this just having a good time?”

Dr. Weglein: “No.”

I-Team: “What about all the alcohol?”

Dr. Weglein: “What about it?”

I-Team: “Do you know how much you’ve spent in alcohol over the years? Do you have any idea?”

Dr. Weglein: “Uh, this conversation is over.”

So what’s the answer? More than $17,000 in alcohol over the past eight years. That money is not from big oil companies, but rather from the Cullen Family Foundation. It declined to comment on the alcohol tab.

But through a university spokesman, Weglein claimed to have attracted $7 million in grants to UH over the past decade. He maintained all the expenses are “business appropriate” and justified, and said he had prior approval and authorization for all of them.

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