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A technology engineer who was forced to resign a prominent post at the University of Minnesota 11 years ago for misappropriating research money remains on the university's payroll at $112,660 a year, despite working full time for the federal government in Maryland.
The dual employment of Dennis Polla is raising eyebrows at the State Capitol, where a deep budget crisis has put university spending under a microscope.
The U paid $812,494 in 2002 to settle a federal investigation of Polla, documents reviewed by the Star Tribune show. The university, after its own investigation, concluded that Polla misspent federal research dollars, some for the benefit of private research clients. "He improperly used U of M resources for the benefit of his private clients,'' according to the U's report.
Neither the university nor the Department of Justice found evidence that Polla embezzled.
After the investigations, the U removed Polla as head of biomedical engineering, but he quietly stayed on as a professor and manager, even after losing tenure in 2007.
"It's startling to see that he is still on the payroll and I really am questioning how he can be performing his duties when he is employed full time on the East Coast," said Senate Finance Committee Chair Claire Robling, R-Jordan.
University spokeswoman Patty Mattern said Polla meets all expectations for his job, which she described as part time. "We're pleased he's willing to use his wealth of knowledge and experience to educate our students,'' she said.
Polla declined to discuss any aspect of his employment, including how often he travels to Minnesota.
'We expect you to live here'
Polla's boss at the U, Massoud Amin, wouldn't say how many trips Polla makes to Minnesota. But he said Polla is an "exemplary" faculty member who meets job duties in a graduate degree program that holds classes on weekends.
Rep. Bud Nornes, chairman of the House Higher Education Policy and Finance Committee, said it's not humanly possible for one person to work two full-time jobs that are in different regions of the country.
"It's not a scam, but he is taking advantage of somebody, either the government or the university," Nornes said. "If you work here full time, we would expect you to live here. That's the bottom line."
Polla has a glass-enclosed office on the U's West Bank campus that overlooks the Mississippi River. The fifth-floor perch sits empty while he works weekdays at Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), an office that serves the CIA and 15 other U.S. intelligence agencies. Polla moved to IARPA this year after working since 2004 in Alexandria, Va., as a micro-technology program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a research arm of the Department of Defense.
The two federal agencies said Polla was hired only after comprehensive security clearance. At his current job, where his salary is confidential, extra employment is subject to an "outside activity approval process,'' said Jamie Smith, spokeswoman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
At the U, Polla is director of graduate studies in the small and secluded Management of Technology program at the Technological Leadership Institute (TLI). Amin calls Polla's job "part time," saying it doesn't pay fringe benefits. But university payroll records show that Polla is the highest-paid member of the TLI staff behind Amin. The program has 54 students.
The two men co-teach two of the four courses that Polla carries. Not all of those courses are taught every semester, and one of the four is an annual trip overseas with students to study international business for two weeks. This year's trip was to Singapore and Vietnam, in January.
He has 'wealth of experience'
Amin declined interview requests. In e-mails, he said Polla teaches "in person" on Saturdays and makes other visits as needed, at his own expense. "He has a wealth of experience that he uses for educational purposes, which is a noble undertaking," Amin said.
Bradley Rossiter, a student in the program, said Polla's work for the government enhances his work for the U.
"The value of the program isn't that we're working with tenured professors who never leave the office," Rossiter said. "It's working with those people who are out there in the world, who have traveled, who have experience, who do government work."
Nornes said that while Polla may be viewed as a good employee, the U could get more for its money by hiring someone who isn't entangled in a demanding federal job on the Atlantic Coast.
"I don't know if there is anybody who is so special, so talented, so smart that they can't find a replacement who at least lives here," Nornes said.
Polla first joined the U's engineering faculty in 1987 after teaching at Yale and studying at MIT and the University of California, Berkeley.
His name faded from public attention until last month, when U President Robert Bruininks announced at a Board of Regents meeting that Polla had won two honorary awards from defense agencies for "devoted" and "exceptional" public service.
Military research was at the heart of the 1995-2000 research controversy involving Polla. His research at the U for DARPA was financially mismanaged, scientifically unsuccessful and deficient in progress reports, according to the university's investigation report. Still, DARPA hired him in 2004 under an employee-sharing program in which DARPA paid Polla's U salary.
The sharing ended in 2007, but Polla remained on DARPA's payroll. Simultaneously, he lost tenure at the U but was hired in August 2007 for his current job.
Defense money was misspent
Nikos Papanikolopoulos, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, was the DARPA project's lead investigator. Papanikolopoulos told the Star Tribune that he asked Polla to leave the project after he failed to make progress on two sensors that Polla was supposed to design for miniature robots, called "pickles." U.S. combat soldiers now use the devices for special assignments.
"There were several issues. The most important for me was the fact that there was no performance," said Papanikolopoulos, a Distinguished McKnight University Professor. "He did not do what he said he would."
According to the university's investigation, federal research sponsors withheld payments in several instances because of Polla's failure to report progress.
In one instance, Honeywell "was extremely irritated at the delay in getting its invoice for the project,'' the university report said. Investigators said Polla represented the problem as a "paper-processing snafu,'' but accounting documents showed that "there was no personal effort committed to the project before the request for an invoice.'' Meanwhile, private research projects received special treatment, the report said.
The report said university officials brushed off would-be whistleblowers until February 1999, when staff complaints against Polla were finally investigated. One official who had ignored complaints had urged staff to be submissive to Polla, saying he was "a star in a hot area," the report said.