It’s been three months since we began contacting officials at Penn State about potential ethics problems with School of Hospitality Management (SHM) Professor John W. O’Neill. On Jan. 9, 2017, a University official confirmed Conflict of Interest (COI) investigators are looking into questions we’ve raised about O’Neill using the University’s brand and resources to run a private consulting firm.
Our reporting has uncovered strong evidence suggesting Professor O’Neill is using his position at Penn State not only to bolster his consulting practice, but also to increase the credibility of the hotel lobby-funded research he conducts on behalf of his client, the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA).
O’Neill’s actions may violate at least three Penn State ethics policies.
COI Director Clint Schmidt’s emailed statement to us, which asserts he has “nothing further to add to our previous communications,” although it’s the only communication we have received from his office, insinuates that O’Neill is taking a step to distance his consulting practice from the University by creating a private email address to use as his consulting practice contact.
You can read Mr. Schmidt’s complete email to us here:
After we began discovering evidence of Professor O’Neill’s possible violations of Penn State’s ethics standards, we noted that he changed the email address on his International Society of Hospitality Consultants (ISHC) page.
Here is a screenshot from the site, accessed on December 5, 2016:
The COI director pointed out that O’Neill changed his email address by telling us, “We… would note, as you have, that the faculty member you reference has made changes to his web pages.”
However, by the time Schmidt made that claim, Professor O’Neill was again using his Penn State email on his ISHC webpage.
Here is a screenshot from the ISHC site taken January 9, 2017, the morning we received Director Schmidt’s email:
Solving a reCAPTCHA reveals his PSU email address:
Penn State has long known about Professor O’Neill’s consulting practice. In fact, a 2011 Penn State news release announcing his appointment to SHM Director lauds him for his “strong ties to the [hotel] industry,” and notes:
“In addition to his professional and academic roles, O’Neill has been a consultant for dozens of companies, including the Darien Hospitality Group, Hilton Hotels, Marriott International, American Express, Citizens Bank, GMAC Commercial Mortgage, Kaplan Publishing, Prentice Hall, as well as a number of law firms.”
Considering the University’s possible complicity in Professor O’Neill’s apparent ethics policy violations, we are encouraged its ethics officers are taking our referral seriously. We hope the inquiry is being conducted with more rigor than demonstrated by the COI Program Director Schmidt’s easily fact-checked errors.
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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.