Two superstar University of Minnesota professors have been indicted in Georgia for allegedly scheming to draw salaries from two public universities at once.
Francois Sainfort and Julie Jacko face felony charges of conspiracy, theft and false statements. Sainfort faces 14 counts, a fine of up to $1.04 million and up to 165 years in prison. Jacko faces 11 counts, a fine of up to $902,000 and 115 years in prison.
The husband and wife duo -- who specialize in making sense of health data -- first drew attention in 2008, when officials from the University of Minnesota and Georgia Tech questioned why they received paychecks from both.
Nearly three years later, the 27-page indictment charges them with lying about their dual employment.
In February 2008, months after being added to the U's payroll, Sainfort allegedly told a dean and an associate dean that "until informed by Georgia Tech, he did not know he had been receiving paychecks from the University of Minnesota."
The U sent the pair letters of reprimand and imposed a total of $59,000 fines in December. There could be more to come.
"If evidence comes out during this criminal case that adds to what we already knew back in December, we have ... reserved the right to take further action," the U's general counsel, Mark Rotenberg, said on Wednesday. "These are very serious, grave allegations."
Attorneys for the professors said they are innocent and were forthcoming with both universities about their employment.
Timeline at issue
After being wooed for two for years, the U says, Sainfort and Jacko signed U employment contracts and were added to the U's payroll in October 2007. They were expected to be full time at Minnesota at the beginning of January.
But the professors' attorneys challenge that timeline. "Those at the University of Minnesota well knew that they were not working for them," said Buddy Parker, attorney with Maloy Jenkins Parker, who represents Sainfort. "They were working at Georgia Tech and they earned their salary.
"There was not a dual employee situation."
Robert Rubin, an attorney for Jacko, said: "Anybody who knows Dr. Jacko knows what a fine person she is. These charges are an anathema to who she is."
Jacko is a professor in the U's School of Public Health and director of the University Partnership for Health Informatics. While Georgia's attorney general was quietly investigating her, the University of Minnesota was lauding her research moxie.
She made headlines last year for bringing in a $5.15 million grant to train health care professionals in "health informatics," a field that uses electronic medical records to improve patient care and soothe administrative headaches. Her online biography says that she has generated nearly $15 million in research funding in the past 10 years. The Minnesota commissioner of health appointed her to serve on a Minnesota e-health advisory committee, it says.
But there also has been criticism. In April 2010, Jacko got a negative mention in a National Institutes of Health (NIH) critique of a $40 million research grant application headed by Dr. Bruce Blazar, an expert in pediatric blood and marrow transplantation at the U's Masonic Cancer Center.
Jacko originally was slotted as the leader of the biomedical informatics function of the research, but NIH reviewers said she was "inadequately qualified for this role.'' The grant application was revised with a Mayo Clinic partner proposed as the strategic director of informatics.
But the April 2010 critique of that plan said that, "in essence,'' leadership of informatics would remain with Jacko because the Mayo partner would be 80 miles away.
"The plan to remotely direct such an essential ... function is viewed as a major weakness,'' the NIH document said.
Blazar could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
Sainfort is a professor in the U's School of Public Health. When the allegations of double-dipping arose in 2008, he resigned as head of the Division of Health Policy and Management in that school. Now, his online biography lists him as Mayo professor of public health despite the fact that in 2008 he also said he would drop that title.
Jacko made a total of $217,440 in 2010. Sainfort made a total of $265,000.
U fined pair in December
In December, the U disciplined Sainfort and Jacko. Sainfort was fined $44,024 for fringe benefits collected during the double employment and travel expenses also reimbursed by Georgia Tech. Jacko was fined $14,712. Those amounts reflect that the U's investigation found Sainfort "largely responsible for" issues during Jacko's transition, according to the Dec. 14 letter.
"As part of their reprimands, the university advised them that there may be grounds for further university review and action in the event material new facts come to light," Rotenberg said in a statement on Wednesday.
Georgia's indictment highlights a February 2008 e-mail in which Sainfort claims a "completely full" schedule at Georgia Tech.
"As a matter of fact, Julie and I have not even signed an employment contract yet with Minnesota," it says. "We have only agreed to unofficially start this semester with full residence starting in May so that they can put the searches to rest and announce it to our respective units."
It charges the pair with fraudulently billing Georgia Tech for travel expenses.
Sainfort did not handle his travel directly, Parker said. He attributed the billings to an administrative mishap that has since been fixed.
Also charged with conspiracy is Robert Jacko, Julie Jacko's brother. The indictment alleges that, in applying to be a consultant for the Georgia Tech Health Systems Institute, he failed to disclose that his brother-in-law ran the institute. The institute issued him checks totaling $95,000 for his work as a consultant.
Sainfort, Robert Jacko and Julie Jacko worked together, the indictment alleges, to pretend that Robert Jacko "was contributing significant services and work product" to a project at the institute "which he was not."
Staff writer Tony Kennedy contributed to this report. Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168