Two U profs suspected of double dipping

  • Article by: TONY KENNEDY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 20, 2008 - 1:22 AM

Georgia Tech says it's revoking tenure of the two it suspects of "potential fraud." The U hopes it's just an employment dispute.

A pair of preeminent University of Minnesota professors who were hotly and successfully recruited away from Georgia Tech are in trouble with the Atlanta school for possible double-dipping of salaries and expense payments.

Profs. Francois Sainfort and Julie Jacko, who are husband and wife, signed agreements last October to move to the U of M in January. They are national leaders in the emerging field of "health informatics'' -- making sense of computer-generated health data.

Georgia Tech officials contend the school renewed Sainfort's contract in October and Jacko's contract in January.

The couple were making a total of just over $400,000 a year at Georgia Tech; their Minnesota salaries top $500,000.

An attorney for the professors said Saturday that the couple are eager to have the situation reviewed by the Georgia attorney general. University of Minnesota officials said they will cooperate with any investigation.

"Our hope is that it's just an employment dispute,'' said Bill Donohue, an attorney for the U.

Questions of possible double-dipping by Sainfort and Jacko come 15 years after a University of Minnesota professor was caught working at a full-time position at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.

In that case, Prof. Tzvee Zahavy, a nationally known scholar in Jewish studies, resigned from both schools after drawing two paychecks for several months.

The current conflict first came to light last Wednesday, when Georgia Tech issued a statement saying that it was in the process of revoking the tenure of two professors it suspected of "potential fraud and theft.'' The school said it had referred the case to the state attorney general for possible legal action but didn't identify the two professors. The Atlanta Journal Constitution named them in a Saturday report.

"The faculty members are suspected of dual employment and double billing their time to [Georgia Tech], falsifying travel reimbursement documents and other potentially illegal actions,'' the school said. "To date, the investigation has revealed approximately $100,000 in questionable activity.''

Georgia Tech said the issue was revealed in a review of expense records by its internal audit department.

Bewildered and shocked

Martin Goldberg, the Miami attorney who is representing Sainfort and Jacko, said the couple is bewildered and shocked by Georgia Tech's actions. The school's presentation of information has been incomplete and inaccurate, he said.

"We are welcoming an objective and professional review by the attorney general's office,'' Goldberg said.

John Finnegan Jr., the dean of the U of M's School of Public Health, said Sainfort told him about a month ago that his departure from Georgia Tech was in dispute.

"What he discussed with me is that he's just embarrassed and devastated by this,'' Finnegan said. "He has my personal confidence that he's going to resolve this and get through it.''

Donohue said the university sent contract information regarding Sainfort and Jacko to Georgia Tech before it issued its news release on the case.

Finnegan said the U of M wooed Sainfort and Jacko for more than a year. The two had a reputation for winning millions of dollars in contracts and grants for research.

Sainfort was paid $235,440 at Georgia Tech and his Minnesota salary is $285,000. Jacko was making $167,000 at Georgia Tech and her Minnesota salary is $216,000.

U contracts signed

As soon as they signed contracts with the U in October, they began to draw compensation, Finnegan said, including money for trips between Atlanta and Minneapolis-St. Paul. The pair settled into their offices in Minnesota in January.

"We went after these two people because they are so good,'' Finnegan said. "As this develops we'll need to look into it and see what substance is there.''

Jacko's supervisor echoed Finnegan's comments.

"I do not have much information at this point," said Dr. Frank Cerra, senior vice president of health sciences at the university.

"Professor Jacko is one of the nation's best health informaticists. She was recruited by the Schools of Nursing and Public Health because of that stature. ... The university is now in the process of discovering what is fact and what is not. Once that is completed, we will have a better understanding of what, if anything, transpired. In the meantime, Professor Jacko will continue performing her duties."

Sainfort came to Georgia Tech in 2000. He was the associate dean for interdisciplinary programs in the College of Engineering and director of the Health Systems Institute. At the U of M, he is Mayo Professor and head of the Division of Health Policy and Management at the School of Public Health.

According to a U website, Sainfort has served as principal investigator on more than $13 million in contracts and grants during his career.

He also works as a consultant to health care delivery organizations, medical device companies, clinical labs, and pharmaceutical, insurance and information technology companies.

Jacko, who earned a doctorate in industrial engineering from Purdue University in 1993, was named director of the Institute for Health Informatics at the U of M in December 2007. She also is a professor in the School of Nursing and School of Public Health.

The institute aims to improve health care through more effective and efficient use of computer-driven information and records.

Staff writer Neal St. Anthony contributed to this report. Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213

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