Since October 2016, we have been reporting on how Penn State School of Hospitality Management (SHM) Professor John O’Neill is using his position at the University not only to bolster his consulting practice, but also to increase the credibility of the hotel lobby pay-to-play research he conducts on behalf of his client, the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA).
Newly uncovered documents provide more evidence that O’Neill violated the University’s research ethics policies when he produced two reports with conclusions directed by AHLA, the primary lobbying arm of the hotel industry.
Despite a brief email informing us that Professor O’Neill has been found in compliance with Penn State policies regarding operating a private consulting firm on campus and managing conflicts of interest, we recently sent a letter to Regis W. Becker, Penn State’s Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer, providing him with this new evidence and asking him to reopen the previous investigation or begin a new inquiry.
Both the New York Times and Checks and Balances Project reported on documents uncovered separately from AHLA’s 2014 and 2016 board of directors’ meetings that show O’Neill was directed by the hotel lobby to produce research that aligns with and bolsters AHLA’s strategic goals.
From page 101 of the 2014 board book:
Our reporting also shows O’Neill failed to disclose significant conflicts of interest to the public and, apparently, to Penn State that resulted from his longstanding commercial relationship with the hotel lobby. This evidence strongly suggests that he might have not only flouted widely accepted research norms, but also violated specific provisions of PSU’s research ethics policy.
The two reports in question are “Extreme Wage Initiatives & The Hotel Industry: Impact on Local Communities and the Nation” in 2014 and “From Air Mattresses to Unregulated Business: An Analysis of the Other Side of Airbnb” in 2016.
For Penn State officials, the question remains:
- Did the conceptualization, production and dissemination of these industry-funded and industry-directed reports meet “the highest ethical standards and guidelines” as Penn State’s ethics policies demand?
O’ Neill’s academic credibility allowed AHLA President/CEO Katherine Lugar to declare in numerous media outlets, including NBC News, Yahoo Finance and CNBC, that the research conducted by a seemingly impartial Penn State professor bolstered her organization’s arguments against increasing the minimum wage. Yet documents uncovered by the New York Times show he had been “engaged” by AHLA.
In 2016, Professor O’Neill’s anti-home sharing report for AHLA garnered media coverage in Bloomberg and The Guardian, among others. In each case, O’Neill was again positioned as simply an impartial researcher.
“To avoid the possibility of any misunderstandings concerning the appropriate conduct of faculty and staff members in regard to all transactions touching upon their University duties and the property of the University.”
In describing what behavior constitutes a conflict of interest, the Penn State’s ethics policy is very clear. This includes:
“Financial conflicts – the existence of a significant financial interest that has the potential to bias research in some fashion. For example, a researcher having a direct financial interest in a company that also sponsors his or her research.”
“Faculty consulting arrangements with research sponsors.”
Considering Mr. Becker’s firm stance that “the university will not tolerate wrongful conduct,” we ask that he conduct a vigorous, transparent investigation that will answer important questions about O’Neill’s hotel lobby-funded reports including:
- Did Professor O’Neill disclose or vet his conflicts of interest with the administrative head of his college or any other appropriate administrative office at Penn State before conducting paid research for the AHLA?
- If so, what was the basis for the decision to allow him to produce these reports for AHLA?
- If not, how and when will the University inform the public that the research integrity of these reports is compromised?
We’ll be sure to update our readers and the Penn State community with any new developments.
You can read the letter in its entirety here.
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.
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