Federal investigators look into St. Aug's grant

jstancill@newsobserver.comApril 1, 2014 

— St. Augustine’s University is being investigated for submitting false information on a federal grant proposal to study minority health, records show.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General is looking into circumstances surrounding a grant for minority health research, according to an email obtained by The News & Observer.

Heggie Allen-Schaal, former dean and executive director of St. Aug’s School of Applied Health and Medical Sciences, said she was asked to write a grant proposal in February 2013 for health research with several other historically black universities. Although she had left St. Aug’s in December to move to Maryland, she agreed to do the work on a contract basis.

She informed the university she would need to re-establish a formal relationship with the university before she could be the principal investigator on the grant, but the university never followed through with her contract, she said.

The $557,547 grant for obesity and diabetes study was later awarded by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. Allen-Schaal was listed as the main researcher for St. Aug’s, even though a contract between her and the university was never executed, she said.

“My name was used; my credentials were used in a fraudulent manner,” Allen-Schaal said.

Neither St. Aug’s President Dianne Boardley Suber nor other university officials responded to requests for comment. A representative with the federal inspector general’s office said the agency generally doesn’t confirm or comment on investigations.

Allen-Schaal, who has a doctorate in nutrition from N.C. State University, worked at St. Aug’s from 2009 to 2012 to build health science programs at the university.

The university has been under financial duress in recent months, and documents show university officials were anxious to be a part of a minority health grant headed up by Hampton University in Virginia.

On Feb. 2, Boardley Suber emailed an executive vice president at Hampton to say “the turnaround time is challenging” but added, “We will do our very best to meet the Monday deadline.”

Allen-Schaal worked through the weekend to get the proposal done, emails show.

Tammalyn Thomas-Golden, assistant vice president for institutional research and planning, wrote to Allen-Schaal to say that she had submitted the grant on Feb. 5 with an estimated $78,000 contract budget. She wrote that she planned to meet with Boardley Suber the following week to discuss a contract for Allen-Schaal as a grant writer/researcher, with teaching duties on the side.

“There are not enough words to thank you for what you did,” Thomas-Golden wrote to Allen-Schaal. “You did not have to step up and help. ... Dr. Suber asked for your cell number. If she hasn’t reached out to you, I believe that she will.”

Allen-Schaal said she was later asked to update credentials on the federal website, but she didn’t do it because she never signed a contract and figured the grant had fizzled.

Suspicions surface

But last summer, she said she saw a notice in an HBCU digest about a $13 million grant awarded to St. Aug’s and several other institutions.

“Naturally, I became very curious,” Allen-Schaal said.

She called the provost, Connie Allen, who is no relation, to ask what was going on. Allen said she didn’t know but suspected that’s why Hampton University officials had been trying to reach Allen-Schaal.

The university had put out a news release to announce the grant, quoting Suber and referring to Thomas-Golden as the principal investigator.

Allen-Schaal, who was not mentioned in the news release, said she contacted the federal government about what she considered to be fraud on the part of the university.

“My integrity is important to me,” she said. “I am concerned, and this is taxpayer money.”

She said that to her knowledge, there’s not a connection between the federal investigation and Suber’s recent decision to place the provost, Allen, on administrative leave.

“If I were still living in Raleigh and Connie was the provost, I’d still be there because I believe in what she was doing for the institution. ... When faculty were being treated unjustly, she would stand up for them at a cost to herself.”

“There’s a limit to allowing people to take advantage of you like that,” Allen-Schaal said, but added that she loved St. Aug’s.

“St. Aug’s has a long history of educating fine African-American students. ... This institution has a great history. It doesn’t deserve going through these ups and downs that compromise its mission.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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