Virginia transportation institute on hold indefinitely

Construction of the Transportation Research Institute is cancelled indefinitely, and University officials said it is doubtful if the federally funded automotive safety center on the Virginia Campus will ever be built.

University officials halted plans for construction of the highway safety research facility in August when Nabih Bedewi, the director of the Virginia Campus’ National Crash Analysis Center, was being investigated for stealing $600,000 in federal funds from the Department of Transportation.

Bedewi was arrested in October, and is facing trial for suspected embezzlement. Without the man who took an active role in planning the institute, which was set to be the new home of the crash center, it currently makes no sense to go ahead with the building’s construction, Executive Vice President and Treasurer Louis Katz said.

“There are different aspects of the research that we can continue without crashing cars,” said Katz, who added that it cost the University “millions of dollars” to prepare the construction site. He said GW may build something else on the land in the future.

Donald Lehman, executive vice president of Academic Affairs, said the University has also had to deal with the retraction of a $14 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration to build the Transportation Research Institute.

“Since the funding for the institute was put on suspension, we had no choice (but to halt construction) because the building was unique to this activity,” Lehman said. “While we are maintaining part of the NCAC using GW funds …we can’t do it indefinitely.”

The Virginia Campus, located in Ashburn, hosts several graduate programs run jointly by GW and the federal government. Since 1995, the campus has received $23 million in federal funds to operate the crash center and other institutes, according to U.S. court documents filed in October.

The FHWA’s decision to freeze funds to build the center has prompted GW to temporarily end most research at the Virginia crash center. Neither University officials nor Department of Transportation officials would comment on when the suspension might be lifted, but said that negotiations between GW and the Department were ongoing.

“We are working with (the FHWA) very closely, discussing different things and possible projects to go forward if the suspension is lifted,” Lehman said.

Bedewi’s arrest has not severed the University’s relationship with the Department of Transportation, however. Administrators are working with the FHWA to determine an “appropriate course of action,” for the future of the joint collaboration, federal highway officials said. The University is also cooperating with federal officials in an audit of the crash center’s accounts.

“We still do a lot of research through the Department of Transportation,” Katz said.

Bedewi was arrested on Oct. 12 and charged with one count of embezzlement. The professor is suspected of funneling grant money into a private company he owned and using federal funds to buy Washington Redskins season tickets, pay off credit card balances and hire a relative for a job she never performed.

A single embezzlement charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison on top of a possible $250,000 fine, said Channing Phillips, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C.

Bedewi has yet to be formally charged by a grand jury. Since such hearings are conducted in secret, Phillips would not comment on when they will take place. According to court documents, Bedewi made his last court appearance on Feb. 16 for a preliminary hearing.

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