The National Science Foundation is investigating whether the head of Maricopa County Community College District's technology center misspent hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for his own pet projects.The federal agency paid the Maricopa Advanced Technology Education Center $1.7 million to create an electronic library.
Kim Grady, the dismissed administrator who oversaw the project, accuses the center's director, Michael Lesiecki, of using much of that money to stage conferences and hide financial shortfalls.
"This is (a) clear case of misuse of funds," Grady wrote in her NSF complaint, "it has been brought to the attention of the district and dismissed."
Lesiecki fired Grady in September. She said the district did not provide a cause for her removal.
Grady said she alerted top district officials more than a year ago that Lesiecki was taking NSF money for the library to pay the center's other bills. In a separate complaint to the district, Grady said money from the NSF grant she expected to receive was short by as much as $200,000 every month.
If Lesiecki did so, he might have violated federal rules and risked MCCCD losing millions of dollars in grants.
"I think we are going to have a serious problem with this," Carol Hale, the district's grants director, wrote to colleagues regarding the NSF complaint just hours after Grady's firing.
MCCCD began its own internal audit of the technology center after firing Grady, in hope of dissuading the NSF's inspector general from launching a federal probe, e-mail records show.
Grady also filed a complaint with the district on Sept. 11, in anticipation of losing her job the next day.
None of the MCCCD officials the Tribune contacted, including Lesiecki, returned calls for comment. Chris Chesrown, a district spokeswoman, said it would be "inappropriate" for those involved with the technology center to discuss the allegations before the investigations are complete.
The Tribune also made a public records request for financial records detailing how the center spent its grant dollars, but MCCCD refused to release them without permission from the NSF.
Chesrown said the district's legal counsel, Pete Kushibab, has asked the agency if those records are confidential, but the NSF hasn't responded.
"Indications now are that we're not supposed to release," Chesrown said Friday.
Diane Banegas, an NSF spokeswoman, said the agency will not confirm or deny if it is even investigating MCCCD.
On Oct. 19, Brian Hess, a special agent with the inspector general, notified the district in an e-mail that he is investigating the center. Hess also requested three years' worth of financial records.
While the NSF began its investigation in October after Grady's complaint, there were questions about the library grant dating back to 2006.
Like all NSF grants, a national visiting committee oversaw the center's work for the agency. MCCCD received the library grant in 2005 and, records show a year later the committee deemed the center's progress "insufficient" on key projects.
The committee would continue to hold that opinion through much of 2007.
The grant is intended to digitize materials on semiconductors and manufacturing, and also to help instructors at the district's colleges upgrade their courses
However, a great deal of the center's resources were invested in an annual conference that Lesiecki heads, called SAME-TEC.
The conference allows university and college technology instructors and industry to meet, present their work and discuss how to better prepare students. It attracts researchers from the largest and most elite in higher education and private industry, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Texas Instruments.
"This effort results in a highly successful conference that is well respected by the college faculty, administration and industry attendees," the committee wrote after visiting SAME-TEC last summer.
But at that time, the committee also found the center's technicians were not doing the work the NSF had specifically paid for.
"On those two fronts, there had been relatively little progress," Martin Reisslein, an ASU electrical engineering professor and a member of the oversight committee, told the Tribune.
Instead, Lesiecki had his employees staged the conference, and paid their salaries from the library grant.
Conference presentations are part of the NSF grant, but Reisslein said "it was one of the smaller goals and it received a lot of the resources."
Grady also accuses Lesiecki of altering time sheets to conceal the extent to which he was using the library grant in other projects.
The district audit focuses exclusively on the library grant, records show. The NSF investigation appears to be broader, looking at all the center's operations.
MCCCD hired an outside firm - Heinfeld, Meech & Co. - to conduct the internal audit. E-mail records indicate it is nearly complete.
Grady said she first brought her concerns to Hale, the district grants director, in 2006 and later to Maria Harper-Marinick, vice chancellor responsible for all academics at the district's 10 colleges.
"I was performing my duty, as director of the grant, in raising issues through the ranks at the district," Grady said. The vice chancellor "should have gone to the NSF, not me."
Harper-Marinick did notify the agency by e-mail, but not until Sept. 14, two days after Grady's firing. By then, the vice chancellor knew Grady had filed complaints with both MCCCD and the NSF, records show. "Your support during this transition would be much appreciated," Harper-Marinick wrote to the federal agency.