Audit lets 'lavish-spending' UH professor off the hook

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by Jeremy Rogalski / I-Team

khou.com

Posted on April 16, 2013 at 10:16 PM

Updated Wednesday, Apr 17 at 7:18 AM

HOUSTON -- From five-star hotel stays to $50 filet mignons, the spending habits of University of Houston physics professor Dr. Arthur Weglein were described as “extravagant” by university officials.

After the KHOU 11 News I-Team exposed the expenses last November, the University promised a thorough investigation. But the I-Team discovered that didn’t happen.

U of H auditors did not examine many of Weglein’s high-dollar purchases. The University did not demand he pay any money back, and it did not take any disciplinary action—instead letting the professor off the hook.

“He’s a professor living a rock-star life at the expense of University of Houston and its donors,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith in November. Smith is the Texas Director of the non-profit watchdog group Public Citizen.

Audit reports obtained by the I-Team do not address $500-plus nightly hotel stays, or all of the international flights Weglein took first class because of supposed back pain.

And the University did not perform an audit of all the $500 Mont Blanc pens Weglein bought, even though then-provost Dr. John Antel previously talked tough about the purchases.

“That’s enough concern for us that there is an ongoing investigation about it,” Dr. Antel said in November.

But the I-Team got a different story when we recently followed up with Craig Ness, associate vice president for Academic Affairs.

I-Team: “Was there an investigation done?”

Ness: “Um, it was looked into.”

But the only proof the University offered that it was “looked into” was a letter to Dr. Weglein dated after our interview. In it, Vice Chancellor Dona Cornell said the pens should not have been bought, but the University accepted Weglein’s story that they were meant as gifts for students. Cornell then “recognized Dr. Weglein’s continued dedication to the University.”

I-Team: “Have there been any sanctions whatsoever against Dr. Weglein?”

Ness: ‘No.”

And what about Weglein's travel? Of the dozens of trips, auditors examined only two--both to San Francisco.

They called a $75 airport taxi ride "unreasonable," but approved it anyway. They said Weglein could not explain $250 in parking charges, but approved them anyway. And when the professor said he had to rent luxury cars to "navigate the steep hills" of San Francisco, the steep price was approved anyway.

"I do things that are appropriate and serve this university," Dr. Weglein told the I-Team in November.

All along, the professor has maintained he's done nothing wrong and points out the expenses were not paid with tuition money. Rather, they’re funded by private donations to the petroleum-industry consortium Weglein runs, the Mission Oriented Seismic Research Program.

But the allegations don't stop with him. The professor's son, Jesse, was also on the University payroll, conveniently as a web designer for his father's oil research program. And the younger Weglein was accused of being a ghost employee.

I-Team: “Was Dr. Wegleins' son doing the work he said he was doing?"

Ness: “The audit was inconclusive in finding whether he did or did not."

Despite the inconclusive finding, auditors did say nobody "could vouch for the number of hours worked by Jesse Weglein." Yet over three years, he made more than $85,000.

I-Team: "How does that happen? How does someone make $80,000 over three years and nobody verifies that he's doing the work?”

Ness: “It happens when people are not overseeing their job properly."

The I-Team was unsuccessful in reaching Jesse Weglein for comment by phone, e-mail or through social media sites.

As for the professor himself? Dr. Arthur Weglein declined to comment on the audit other than saying he is “committed to the University, students, faculty colleagues, staff and compliance with all University policies and procedures.”

After our interview, University Interim Associate Vice Chancellor Richard Bonnin provided the following statement:

“The University of Houston initiated a review of several aspects of expenditures and employment related to one of our consortiums with industry partners, the Mission-Oriented Seismic Research Program. This internal review identified several expenditures that related to a time frame that preceded the implementation of our strengthened policies on travel and entertainment.

“In the internal review, we found some policy violations, which have been remedied (both in writing and by counseling), and we have received full cooperation from all faculty and staff. Our strengthened policies provide the University appropriate controls to identify any extraordinary expenditures and reimbursements, and ensure our commitment to safeguarding University funds. We note again that none of the expenses or reimbursements highlighted in the inquiry came from tuition or other public or government sources.

“In reviewing the University's hire of a specific employee to support this consortium, the University has addressed this matter by conducting an audit. Following completion of the audit, all necessary action has been taken, including changes to strengthen and clarify the University’s policy on nepotism.

“We continue to be committed to ensuring best practices in all areas, and we will continue to review and strengthen our policies and procedures as necessary and appropriate.”

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