- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 23, 2014

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) - The University of Missouri said Tuesday that it’s ended its investigation into federal grant spending that was prompted by a wildlife biologist’s complaint to the federal government, saying the assistant professor won’t agree to an interview with the school.

Assistant professor Dylan Kesler’s False Claims Act lawsuit alleged two colleagues in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife Sciences improperly paid their spouses from pools of federal scientific research money while the women remained home with newborns. Kesler was subsequently denied tenure by Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin - a response that Kesler calls retaliation for the federal complaint.

University officials called Kesler’s complaint “unfounded” after the Justice Department decided against pursuing the case. The school says it’s no longer reviewing the transactions. School officials have declined to discuss Kesler’s tenure denial, citing confidentiality.

Accounting records reviewed by The Associated Press show that soon after university officials met with a federal prosecutor and another federal official, a campus fiscal office transferred nearly $60,000 in state funds to replace federal grants paid to one of the women cited in Kesler’s suit.

Kessler said it shows the university was trying to cover something up. But university spokeswoman Mary Jo Banken said the timing of the replenishment of the federal grants was coincidental and “relates to a separate issue that was identified during the investigation.”

“In the course of reviewing one of the researchers’ work, it became unclear to us whether her particular work, which was within the scope of (her husband’) research program, should have been funded by university funds or federal funds,” she said in a written statement. “We did not want there to be any question about the funding of her salary, so we decided to shift the funds so her salary would be covered by the university. “

Kesler’s confidential complaint was made public in July after the U.S. attorney’s office in Kansas City declined to intervene. The Justice Department told Kesler he can continue to litigate on the government’s behalf, but since the university is a public entity, he wouldn’t be eligible to receive any money, including for legal fees, should his claims prevail. Kesler said he’ll drop the federal case but pursue other action in state court.

In the meantime, he’s out of a job after next semester.

Kesler’s attorney, George Smith, a former University of Missouri professor who became a lawyer after his own legal battle with the school, called his client’s treatment a “pattern of abuse of process and derogation of faculty rights.” He represents seven other professors or former faculty members at the Columbia campus who are suing the school over their treatment.

“It is unprecedented for this degree of litigation involving faculty rights and conduct to be occurring at a major research institution,” he said.

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Follow Alan Scher Zagier on Twitter at https://twitter.com/azagier

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