$241,364.83 – $13,000 = $228,364.83

December 2, 2012

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

A blog commenter pointed me to this news article on Sudhir Venkatesh, a sociology professor here:

He was the subject last year of a grueling investigation into a quarter-million dollars of spending that Columbia auditors said was insufficiently documented, misappropriated or outright fabricated.

According to internal documents from that investigation, which were obtained by The New York Times, the auditors said that Professor Venkatesh directed $52,328 to someone without any “documented evidence of work performed.” He listed a dinner for 25 people, relating to research on professional baseball players; auditors found that only 8 people had attended . . .

All told, auditors questioned expenses amounting to $241,364.83. . . .

Professor Venkatesh said in a brief phone conversation in October that he had repaid $13,000. . . . “I have never been accused of fraud or embezzlement.”

One thing that frustrates me with newspaper articles is when they don’t follow up. Venkatesh was accused of paying “$52,328 to the subject of one of his documentaries were for what auditors called ‘fabricated business purposes’” and billing a dinner for 25 people when only 8 attended. How do you get from that to “I have never been accused of fraud”?

And, indeed, this is a case that has puzzled a lot of people around campus. The news article seems a bit misfocused, in that it has a lot about Venkatesh’s controversial research methods and only a little on his alleged embezzlement. A sociologist friend of Sudhir is quoted as saying, “The criticism can be jealousy.” I don’t know how things are in the sociology department, but around campus my impression is that there has always been a lot of respect for interdisciplinary research. I personally had a good feeling for Sudhir because he had served as an advisor to a Quantitative Methods in Social Science student back in the early days of that program, and also he gave a nice plug for our Red State Blue State book on the Freakonomics blog. I had not actually read Sudhir’s research articles and was unaware of any scholarly controversy regarding his work.

Misallocation of funds is another matter. It has nothing to do with interdisciplinary research or anything like that. When Sudhir was in charge of Iserp, he told us that they were out of money and would not be able to honor existing commitments. Or, to be more precise, that things that I considered commitments were not actually so because they had only been transmitted orally, and that more generally Iserp was broke and could not support research in the way that we had expected. I was pretty angry about that, but when Sudhir informed me that he was suddenly stepping down as head of Iserp to work on a project with the Justice department, I assumed that he was better suited to be a researcher than an administrator and I offered him statistical help with his DOJ project if he ever needed it. I figured he was back on the research track and that this was better for all concerned. I don’t think I’d be a very good administrator myself, so I just figured Sudhir had been over his head. I’ve only seen him once since, it was a year or so ago at a sociology seminar, but we were sitting in different areas of the room and I had to leave early, so we did not get a chance to speak.

When I later heard that hundreds of thousands of dollars were missing, that put a different spin on the story. I had heard rumors of an investigation but I’d never known that there was an official document, dated Aug 4, 2011 (nearly a year and a half ago!) detailing $240,000 of questionable expenses including $50,000 for fabricated business purposes. If, as Sudhir is quoted as saying in the news article, he’s only paid pack $13,000 of this, I assume more will happen. It’s not clear why the university would pay a salary to someone who still owes them over $200,000.

Or maybe the report was in error and all those payments were legit. Who knows—maybe there really were 25 people at that dinner. I have no idea.

P.S. Let me emphasize that I’m not accusing Sudhir of anything. Maybe he just messed up some paperwork. Until seeing that news article today, all I’d heard were rumors.

P.P.S. Sudhir responds here, saying he was not “a good bookkeeper.” He has no particular comment regarding the dinner listed for 25 people where only 8 attended, or the mysterious $52,328, but he does say that “The irony is that from 2010 onward . . . I [Sudhir] worked actively with the Arts & Sciences to restructure ISERP’s management of grants and research. I repeatedly pointed out lax procedures that had long been the rule there and I called for a thorough review of all procedures on several occasions, in part because I was worried about the risks the University faced.” That does sound ironic.

Sudhir also writes that he is “deeply troubled that someone within the University’s administration selectively leaked private documents to the media. It is hard to have full confidence in the integrity of the University’s processes when things like this occur.” I have no idea who leaked the documents—as noted above, before seeing this in the newspaper I’d only heard rumors that there had been an investigation—but, from my perspective, $240,000 of missing funds of which only $13,000 has been returned, that’s more “deeply troubling” than a leak. It’s also a bit disturbing that a person who, at best, can’t keep track of hundreds of thousands of dollars, was in charge of an institute whose main function is to keep track of outside funding. I’m not so good at bookkeeping either; that’s why I rely on the people at Iserp to help me with such things.

P.P.P.S. More here (from Jeremy Freese) and here (from Richard Bradley).

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