Professors fear backlash from embezzlement charges

By all accounts, Nabih Bedewi was no ordinary professor.

As director of the University’s National Crash Analysis Center, Bedewi was a fundraising superstar at a school seeking to secure federal grants to become a top-tier research institution. During his 14-year career, he was instrumental in procuring Transportation Department grants to build facilities at the University’s Virginia Campus; GW administrators and professors estimated that Bedewi may have single-handedly raised more than $20 million.

“Bedewi was not just an extraordinary professor,” said an engineering faculty member who requested anonymity because engineering school Dean Timothy Tong ordered professors not to talk about Bedewi. “He was one of the most productive guys GW ever saw … He was able to do things that seemed impossible for other people.”

“Many of us thought he had the Midas touch,” the professor added.

But Bedewi’s superman status came crashing down in June, when he resigned due to a federal and University investigation into his financial transactions. On Oct. 12, he was arrested and charged with embezzling about $600,000 in federal grants that were supposed to be put toward research.

Between December 2002 and April 2004, federal prosecutors charge that Bedewi illegally funneled funds into a private company that he founded. According to court documents, Bedewi used the money to pay car leases and credit bills, renew his Washington Redskins tickets and give a salary to his brother’s wife for a job she did not perform.

Federal and University officials have declined to say how Bedewi managed to elude University and federal regulators for two years. GW launched an investigation into Bedewi’s dealings in May after “certain financial transactions became a subject of interest through a routine administrative review,” said Tracy Schario, GW’s director of Media Relations.

In interviews last week, University officials and professors said there are no foolproof ways to ensure against theft. At Friday’s Board of Trustees meeting, President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg compared Bedewi to Willie Sutton, who, when asked why he robbed banks, responded, “That’s where they keep the money.”

“Ever since there have been places where you get money, someone has been trying to steal it,” Trachtenberg said.

No foolproof system

Like many things in higher education, oversight of research financing depends greatly on the honor code. While GW audits research account books regularly and asks professors about possible conflicts of interests, the burden is ultimately on individual faculty members to make comprehensive disclosures.

“If someone really wants to violate the system, certainly they are going to get away it,” said Donald Lehman, executive vice president for Academic Affairs.

Lehman, along with several other officials and professors, said universities can prevent theft only by putting so many constraints and regulations on a project that academic objectives are undermined.

“You can make it foolproof, but then you won’t have anything,” Lehman said. “You won’t have research.”

The engineering faculty member who requested anonymity agreed with Lehman, saying that effective and appropriate safeguards are already in place at GW.

“We assume that people do what they’re supposed to do,” the faculty member said.

Any system that would have been heavily critical of Bedewi would have jeopardized the future procurement of funds, the faculty member said.

Another GW professor who spoke on the condition of anonymity described the research accounting system, and Lehman’s and Trachtenberg’s approach to bookkeeping, as “ultra-cautious” and “ultra-conservative.”

“They have always been extremely helpful and extremely candid about what can be done and what can’t be done,” the professor said. “If you scrutinize too tightly, some will say, ‘Why do I bother bringing money here?'”

Making changes to the system

Even though officials insisted that GW has a comprehensive research review policy, they are taking steps to beef up oversight. While nothing has been implemented, some professors fear that the system would sap research and morale.

One proposal under consideration by the Faculty Senate would make the University’s research procedures more comprehensive. The procedures would be more in line with a government research policy recommended to universities several years ago.

Currently, procedures to investigate misconduct are only in place in certain fields; the new proposal would broaden the procedures to all research disciplines.

Under the new policy, a committee would hold a preliminary hearing if a professor in any field is accused of research misconduct through charges of plagiarism or theft, for example. If the committee finds probable cause of misconduct, a formal hearing will be held where punishments may be meted out. If the charges involve government funds, federal officials will be notified when allegations appear credible.

Arthur Wilmarth, a law professor who chairs the Faculty Senate’s Executive Committee, said he expects that his organization may also be asked to consider a more stringent conflict of interest policy.

“There’s probably not much doubt that they’ll be more scrutinizing of these grants and there will be more reporting,” he said.

But more reporting is exactly what some faculty members fear.

“I am scared to death about what is going to happen in the future as far as the GW administration placing stifling controls and endless justifications on the activities of research faculty,” the engineering professor said.

Another professor suspected that “innocent people will get caught up in this.”

“Every charge I make will be questioned. I will be asked to explain every claim,” the professor said. “It’s like our tax system. If you get audited, you’re annoyed, especially if you’re clean.”

The professor added, “You get a bad apple, and the bad apple tarnishes everything else.”

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