Professors face corruption charges over misuse of research funds

In a case that has rocked the academic community in Taiwan and put many scientific research projects in jeopardy, 22 professors at some of the country’s top universities – including the prestigious National Taiwan University – have been charged with using false receipts to claim reimbursements out of research funds.

Public prosecutors are pushing for more serious charges of corruption, not just fraud, in some cases, which could affect academic careers.

Fraudulently obtained reimbursements claimed over two to three years from 2008 onwards, and worth between NT$50,000 (US$1,700) and NT$500,000 ($17,000), were allegedly used by some academics to buy personal items including consumer electronics, television sets and shopping vouchers.

Some of those charged are claiming that they spent the reimbursements on equipment that was used for their work, such as photocopying machines, printers, paper and toner cartridges.

But with so many academics being charged, some of them with substantial reputations – and the highest number from National Taiwan University – the Education Ministry and research funding bodies, including Academica Sinica and Taiwan’s National Science Council (NSC), are appealing to the Ministry of Justice for leniency.

In a joint statement this week, the head of Academica Sinica Chi Huey-Wong, NSC chief Cyrus Chus and Minister of Education Chiang Wei-ling said corruption charges would deal a serious blow to academic morale.

Vice Minister of Education Chen Der Hua also said this week that many of the professors were elites in their fields, adding that nurturing such talent was not easy. “We will provide judicial assistance if necessary,” he was quoted in local media as saying.

A dozen professors from National Chung Hsing University, National Yang Ming University, National Defence Medical Centre and National Taichung University of Education were indicted on 4 January. Another 10 academics from NTU, National Chengchi University and National Taiwan Normal University were indicted on 7 January, the Changhua District Prosecutors Office said.

More indictments could follow, in what has turned out to be a major, countrywide reimbursements scam that even prosecutors say has taken them by surprise.

The prosecutor's office has charged the professors with using false receipts from two scientific instrument companies, and also for benefiting from rigged tenders, according to official documents.

Prosecutors alleged that the Taiwanese companies Kuo Yang Scientific Corporation and Li Ming Instrument Company inflated the prices of goods tendered to universities and then passed the difference between the inflated and actual prices to the professors, according to an 8 January report by Taiwan’s national news agency.

The 22 indicted professors are among 300 academics and researchers investigated by the Ministry of Justice’s Taipei Investigation Bureau after prosecutors were tipped off in June 2011 that an associate professor at National Changhua University of Education had used fake receipts purporting to be from Kuo Yang Scientific Corporation to claim reimbursements from the university.

Following a ministry investigation into the university and the company, and raids at three other universities in March last year, when account books and other documents were seized, hundreds of professors at universities around the country were allegedly found to be involved in the scam to use bogus receipts to claim money from the Ministry of Education, their universities or the National Science Council, which funds research.

Many may face charges of forgery. But the justice ministry has caused consternation by saying it will lay more serious charges of corruption in some cases.

NTU President Lee Si Chen said his university’s legal department would look into whether suspected academics could be treated as civil servants, which would enable prosecutors to lay charges of corruption under government statutes that apply to probity of public officials rather than under the more restrictive Fundamental Science and Technology Act.

With considerable concern about what this would mean for the country’s international research reputation, Education Minister Chiang Wei-Ling said on 7 January that he had urged the justice ministry not to press corruption charges.

Chiang was quoted in local media as saying that while the professors should not use government funds for personal gain, he had appealed to the justice ministry to treat them more leniently if the funds were used for research. He added that the reimbursement system would be reformed.

Deputy Minister Chen said in separate remarks that the cases may have arisen because of restraints in the reimbursement system. “The Ministry of Education had discussed with the National Science Council last year to ease related regulations to make reimbursement claims more flexible,” Chen was quoted as saying.

Some officials even argued that with so many Western-trained academics, many were not familiar with the reimbursement system. NSC Deputy Minister Henry Sun described the prosecutors’ actions as not being “in proportion” and said the reimbursements were small.

However, legislators in parliament’s education and culture committee said in a heated debate on Monday that prosecutors should use every means at their disposal to punish professors who had used university funds for private purposes, because professors should be held to the highest standards of society.