Former U of L Dean Felner guided funds to center, e-mails show
R.I. group told to bill U of L for research, but use money on salaries
Former University of Louisville dean Robert Felner directed almost $130,000 in U of L funds toward a University of Rhode Island education center he created that was in dire need of money, according to e-mails and documents obtained by The Courier-Journal.
And in at least once instance he told officials at the National Center on Public Education and Social Policy in Rhode Island to submit a bill to U of L for research work but use the money for center salaries and future work, those e-mails show.
Such an action may violate university policies and could result in consequences as serious as dismissal, U of L officials said.
The Rhode Island center is one of two agencies Felner had a personal connection with that received money from a $694,000 federal education grant he managed while at U of L. The other center was based in Illinois.
Felner, who was dean of U of L's College of Education and Human Development until resigning in June, now is the focus of a federal investigation into possible misuse of the grant money.
Between 2005 and this June, Anne Seitsinger, director of the Rhode Island center, and Felner exchanged hundreds of e-mails, including several where she worried about running out of money to pay the staff, according to U of L documents The
Courier-Journal received through an open-records request.
In one 2005 e-mail, Seitsinger told Felner: "Our budget is pretty desperate. We are
short about $90K."
That same month, the center's business manager, Diana Laferriere, e-mailed Felner, writing: "Robert, are you giving out loans? We sure need one right now!"
E-mails on fundingFelner and Seitsinger exchanged e-mails at that time about possibly using U of L funding to cover salaries for center staff in the summer, a move they hoped would cut overhead costs to the University of Rhode Island.
Felner said in one e-mail that he would hire a center staff member as a consultant "for the month, but that would require real work."
But he told Seitsinger in an e-mail to bill U of L for $15,000 for "additional analysis and survey processing relating to research."
"I will simply get the funds up to you for payment," he wrote, adding that the funds should cover a month's salary for one center worker and "get us a $10K running start on next year for a little in the bank on some of the upcoming work and salaries."
Violation of policyU of L spokesman John Drees said yesterday that directing someone to bill the university for one purpose when the intent was to use the money for something else violates university policy. Violators can face repercussions ranging from a reprimand to dismissal.
The violation may be compounded by Felner's failure to disclose his relationship with the Rhode Island center, a requirement for all U of L employees involved in research and one that is common at research institutions.
"The whole idea is avoid conflicts in decision-making," said James Tracy, vice president for research at the University of Kentucky, which has a similar disclosure policy.
It is unclear if the e-mails between Felner and the Rhode Island center are part of the investigation. U.S. Attorney David Huber would say only that he expects the grant investigation to be completed in September.
Seitsinger did not return calls and e-mails this week.
Felner has not returned phone calls seeking comment. But his attorney, Scott C. Cox, said yesterday that the Rhode Island center received the funds because it "had done legitimate work and earned the money."
Drees said yesterday that an internal audit of the education department is continuing. He had no additional comments, citing the ongoing federal investigation.
And Robert Weygand, vice president for administration at the University of Rhode Island, said that university is continuing a review of its center, which should be completed by next month.
[Two] $60,000 contractsIn 2006 and 2007, Felner arranged for the Rhode Island center to receive two $60,000 contracts to be paid with money from the federal education grant that is now under investigation.
The $694,000 federal grant was intended to establish a center at U of L that would study ways to boost student achievement on federal No Child Left Behind tests. But the center has no staff and no office, and local and state education officials have said they knew nothing about it or its research.
University of Rhode Island officials say Felner contracted with its center to help conduct research related to the federal grant, which the university said it did, though the work has not been made public. University of Rhode Island officials have refused to release the work to The Courier-Journal because of the potential of individual student results being identified.
Rhode Island officials say the center was paid for one of the $60,000 contracts but is still awaiting payment on the second.
Felner was a Rhode Island professor from 1997 to 2003, when he left to become dean of U of L's College of Education and Human Development.
Rhode Island officials say the university paid Felner to run their national center until he left for U of L in 2003.
But Felner's connections with the center continued long after he moved to Louisville. The center's Web site listed him as its director until 2006, and he attended staff
meetings there as recently as June, according to e-mails between Felner and
And in addition to the $60,000 the Rhode Island center received from the education grant, U of L records show that Felner also sent $66,178 -- through a series of four payments -- to the center.
In 2005, before Felner received the federal NCLB grant, U of L sent $6,178 to the Rhode Island center to cover printing costs for surveys for schools in California and
According to the center's Web site, the Rhode Island center had research contracts to do the work for the Santa Monica/Malibu Unified School District and Buffalo Public Schools.
In June 2006, U of L sent a $30,000 check to the Rhode Island center for "academic counseling services provided in conjunction with the NCLB and Jefferson County Public Schools projects."
In March 2007, U of L sent two checks for $15,000 each to the Rhode Island center for academic counseling services.
In May of this year, e-mails show that Felner was seeking to give the center more money -- between $35,000 and $40,000 -- for work it completed as part of a principal study he was hired to do in 2005 by Jefferson County Public Schools.
The district paid U of L $50,000 for that study. U of L officials have said almost all of
that money remains in a university account that was controlled by Felner.
Return to R.I.?
In addition to discussing money, Felner and Seitsinger e-mailed over the years about him possibly leaving U of L to take jobs at other universities, including returning to the University of Rhode Island.
Felner also talked about possibly hiring Seitsinger and her husband, Roy Seitsinger Jr., at U of L. He is the director of the Office of Middle and High school Reform at the Rhode Island Department of Education.
Felner resigned from U of L on June 30 in preparation for becoming chancellor at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside in July. He backed out of that job after the federal investigation became public.
Other university documents have shown that while at U of L, Felner also contracted
with an Illinois center run by Thomas Schroeder, a colleague and friend, to do work in connection with the federal education grant.
Felner is identified on U of L documents and also on the Rhode Island center's Web
site as being involved with the Illinois center, which Schroeder said he created at Felner's request.
Documents show that U of L wrote three checks totaling $450,000 to the Illinois center, called the National Center on Public Education and Prevention Inc., to buy surveys.
But all three checks were later deposited in a Louisville bank account under the
Illinois center's name.
Who deposited the checks has not been made public.