Our reporting has found strong evidence indicating Penn State Professor John W. O’Neill is using his position at the School of Hospitality Management to bolster his consulting practice and credibility of his hotel lobby-funded research. If true, this would violate the university’s ethics standards.
So, we were encouraged to learn via a Dec. 17 Centre Daily Times story that Penn State had referred our questions about Professor John W. O’Neill to the University’s “Office of Ethics and Compliance for independent review.”
But is the “Office of Ethics and Compliance” that Penn State spokesperson Lisa Powers refers to in the article the only body that could be investigating?
The investigative chain at the University isn’t at all clear from the outside.
For example, is the Ethics and Compliance Office the same as the Office for Research Protections or the Conflict of Interest Program? And, who handles our questions to Professor O’Neill’s Dean, Anne Crouter, about his private consulting practice on campus?
A Follow Up for Director Schmidt
To better understand the next steps in the investigative process, we sent Conflict of Interest Program Director Clint Schmidt a follow up letter asking him these questions:
1. How will the public know your office is investigating the ethics complaint against Professor O’Neill?
2. According to Penn States’ “Procedures for Handling Alleged Noncompliance”:
“When alleged noncompliance comes to the attention of COI staff, the staff will review the information to determine whether it is valid. If it is valid, then COI staff will undertake an inquiry and determine if the alleged noncompliance appears to be serious or continuing.”
What are the standards for your office determining “serious” or “continuing” ethics problems?
3. Per your website, the Conflicts of Interest Program is supposed
“to review and manage all potential financial conflicts of interest in a manner that is consistent throughout the University.”
Does your office only investigate potential violations of Penn State Policy RP06, Disclosure and Management of Significant Financial Interests? Or does it also investigate potential violations of other ethics standards?
4. If there are other oversight bodies involved, which one would handle potential violations of HR91, Conflict of Interest, and Policy HR80, Private Consulting Practice?
5. Per Penn State’s Conflict of Interest web page,
“An Individual Conflict of Interest Committee (COIC), appointed by the Provost, will review all individual disclosures, develop COI management plans, and provide oversight as needed.”
With that in mind, when is the next meeting of the COIC, and will it take up Professor O’Neill’s possible ethical violations?
6. When and how will the outcome of your investigation be released to the public?
Professor O’Neill’s Declaration
In addition, we asked if the COI Program would also add to their investigation the question raised by Professor O’Neill’s statement to the Centre Daily Times. O’Neill unequivocally asserted to the paper that he received authorization to run his private consulting practice from the University:
“I make certain to follow Penn State’s compliance policies…. I talked and met with several Penn State administrators to be sure that’s the case with this project too.”
Despite Professor O’Neill’s claim, we have been unable to obtain documentation from either him or Dean Crouter clarifying that O’Neill’s statement to the Centre Daily is, in fact, accurate. We have been waiting for a response from Dean Crouter on just that question since we sent our letter on Nov. 22.
We hope Director Schmidt replies soon so that we can gain a better understanding of this process and direct our referral to any other relevant Penn State oversight or governing bodies.
You can read the entire letter HERE.
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Evlondo Cooper is a senior fellow with Checks and Balances Project, a national watchdog blog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists, and corporate management accountable to the public. Funding for C&BP comes from sustainable economy philanthropies and donors.