Dr. Pradeep Haldar, a former interim dean and current tenured professor at the Colleges of Nanoscale Science & Engineering at SUNY Polytechnic Institute, has filed a lawsuit in state court against the school, SUNY Research Foundation, and certain officials at the institutions, alleging he was wrongly barred from leading sponsored research projects after an internal investigation sharply criticized his stewardship of two distinct awards.
The lawsuit seeks to void the content of a memo drafted in February by Joshua Toas, chief compliance officer at SUNY RF, the university system’s nonprofit research arm, which concluded that Dr. Haldar had shown “a reckless disregard for the rules and policies that govern our business.”
Dr. Haldar disputes this. “The most prominent allegation in the RF Reports is that Dr. Haldar diverted funds to a SUNY Poly Foundation account to create a pool of discretionary funds for his direction,” the lawsuit states. “This allegation is patently false.” Dr. Haldar also disputes the Toas memo more extensively in an attached affidavit.
A “culture of disempowerment and opaqueness”
While the findings of the contested Toas memo, detailed later in this story, are fairly complex and specific, the lawsuit also draws upon Dr. Haldar’s own emails and other, previously unpublicized SUNY documents, placing his alleged missteps in the broader context of what he calls “SUNY Poly’s fiscal institutional mismanagement.”
SUNY Poly’s seemingly precarious financial state—particularly since former president Alain Kaloyeros resigned in October after state and federal corruption charges were filed against him related to his oversight of bidding processes at two of the school’s affiliated nonprofits—has been widely reported, but the internal documents offer a rare glimpse at how the crisis has been perceived and deliberated internally. (Kaloyeros has pled not guilty.)
Perhaps most notably, Dr. Haldar’s lawsuit includes minutes from a February 2017 meeting of the CNSE College Senate Assembly, where interim SUNY Poly president Bahgat Sammakia “acknowledged that risks taken to achieve SUNY Poly Albany site growth have resulted in the current fiscal situation.”
The high-tech school faces “significant academic and operational challenges” and “a culture of disempowerment and opaqueness,” Sammakia told the assembly, minutes show. “SUNY Poly currently has high debt, high operational costs, no budgets, and a lack of structured, diverse management.”
Sammakia described a proposed plan “to address current debt levels through reduced infrastructure, right-sizing the organization, and focusing on economic development that strategically fits each stakeholder’s mission,” according to minutes. “Our revenues and expenditures can be made equal, but revenues cannot service the existing [Fuller Road Management Corporation, the school’s nonprofit real-estate arm] building debt.”
State lawmakers later appropriated $208 million for SUNY Poly in April, POLITICO reported.
Academic concerns, post-merger
A December 2016 memo from Dr. Haldar to Sammakia, purportedly on behalf of an unspecified “number of concerned faculty from [the] Albany site,” details issues and suggestions related to the school’s academic affairs.
“Recent events have brought us to a period of sweeping changes,” the memo states, likely referring to Kaloyeros’ departure and Empire State Development’s assumption of the school’s economic development portfolio. “While the Research Foundation operations appear to be undergoing extensive restructuring, the academic side of SUNY Poly doesn’t appear to have received much attention to date.”
“A centralized academic affairs infrastructure, based in Utica, is unable to meet the dynamic day-to-day needs at the Albany site,” the memo continues. “[There has been] a continuing precipitous decline in our graduate and undergraduate enrollment since [the] merger in 2014” of SUNYIT in Utica and CNSE in Albany. “Our most aggressive recruiting efforts are not sufficient to overcome our rapidly spreading reputation for a cumbersome and confusing application process coupled with a very negative experience for matriculated students.”
The Toas memo
The “findings, conclusions and recommendations” of SUNY RF’s Toas memo were “arbitrary and capricious,” the lawsuit claims, and were adopted by SUNY RF and SUNY Poly without sufficient attention to facts, due process, the scale of Dr. Haldar’s alleged offenses, and, in the school’s case, the procedure mandated by a collective bargaining agreement.
The Toas memo synthesizes the findings of an internal SUNY RF investigation that apparently started in October 2016, after or around the time an external auditor of the SUNY Polytechnic Institute Foundation, the school’s fundraising arm, observed that certain wire transfers “had no supporting documentation stating what [their] purpose was and could not conclude that [they were] within the mission” of the foundation. (Dr. Haldar says supporting documentation did exist and was sent to the school’s finance department and staff at SUNY Poly Foundation.) The foundation placed the wired funds at issue “into a liability account totaling $25,573.13.”
In addition to his permanent disqualification as a research group leader, the adoption of the Toas memo by SUNY Poly and SUNY RF led to Dr. Haldar losing his post as CNSE interim dean and as a departmental head. Because at CNSE “collaborative externally sponsored research programs and fund-raising are an on-going requirement of all faculty,” the lawsuit indicates, Dr. Haldar is essentially unable to perform a critical part of his job.
The lawsuit states that a representative of United University Professions filed a grievance against SUNY Poly on behalf of Dr. Haldar in April, but that this effort proved “futile.” (A union spokesman declined to comment.)
In one instance, the Toas memo states, a SUNY RF employee “was allowed, outside the scope of a contract and for work that was outside the purview of the Research Foundation relationship with SoloPower,” an Oregon-based solar energy company, “to work as an independent contractor for SoloPower.” SUNY RF “incurred the related salary and fringe expenses on behalf of the employee for the time in question.”
Dr. Haldar “was aware of this activity and, at a minimum negligently failed to administer his duties in the best interest” of SUNY Poly, SUNY RF, “and…the sponsors for which his project [was] funded,” the Toas memo states. “[This] could have resulted in the overcharging of a federal award and a false claim to the federal government.”
“In lieu of working with the campus Operations Manager,” the memo continues, Dr. Haldar “directed SoloPower’s reimbursements to the SUNY Poly Foundation (the OM [had] rejected an unannounced wire transfer from SoloPower because there was no contractual arrangement to support the receivable). The diversion of funds was intended to create a pool of discretionary funds for [Dr. Haldar] to direct.”
Dr. Haldar told a SUNY RF audit team member that the employee in question “performed the out of state work for SoloPower while simultaneously performing his responsibilities in support” of the Photovoltaic Manufacturing Consortium (PVMC), a jointly controlled, $62.5 million nonprofit partnership between SUNY RF and SEMATECH (itself a nonprofit consortium) backed by the U.S. Department of Energy. “[The] salary the employee received for this time were for his normal duties in support of PVMC,” Dr. Haldar told the audit team member, according to the Toas memo.
SoloPower had signed a research and development contract “with PVMC/SUNY RF to receive technology support related to manufacturing development, PV demonstration, and technology validation and commercialization,” Dr. Haldar says in his affidavit. “The DOE requested PVMC to provide support to SoloPower to their activities.”
A report attached to the Toas memo notes that the RF’s contract with SoloPower “ended last June (2015).” In the affidavit, Dr. Haldar says that while “the work in Oregon was outside the original scope of work in the…agreement, it was still in accordance with activity related to PVMC’s mission to support US manufacturing, which was identified in a Purchase Order issued by SoloPower and included as industry funded or cost share work under the program. On prior occasions, work has been performed pursuant to Purchase Orders, without issue.”
Dr. Haldar, according to the Toas memo, also “claimed that the [employee’s] normal work did not stop or suffer while he was away; therefore, he appropriately received his normal RF salary and any work performed for SoloPower was as an [independent] contractor.”
A member of the SUNY RF audit team told Toas that Dr. Haldar’s “explanation was not credible,” the Toas memo states. “If [Dr. Haldar] believed his explanation was accurate, then we would not have directed that the SUNY Poly Foundation receive reimbursement for the work the employee performed in his private capacity as an independent contractor. The inconsistency is glaring and appears intentionally misleading,” the Toas memo concludes.
With respect to this final point, Dr. Haldar responds in the affidavit, in part, that these “conclusions are unfounded, as I first tried to ensure that the funds were deposited in a SUNY RF account. When SUNY RF refused the funds, I was concerned that SoloPower’s advanced payments (not reimbursements) would not be collected, as it is a start-up company that had the potential to run out of money. Therefore, I sought and received approval from the SUNY Poly Foundation executive director and [SUNY Poly’s] finance [department]…to transfer the money to the SUNY Poly Foundation in a holding account. Although this explanation was provided to [a SUNY RF internal auditor], it was excluded from the report.”
In the lawsuit, Dr. Haldar adduces a January 2016 email exchange (subject line: “Help!!”) with Scott Bateman, chief administrative officer of PVMC and associate vice president for finance at SUNY Poly, to argue that the Toas memo fails “to consider [his] repeated requests for guidance.”
“This is a fairly large program and our team lacks the support of a senior financial manager that understands federal requirements that you previously provided at our weekly meetings,” Dr. Haldar wrote to Bateman.
After a “corporate event” in March 2016 at the $195 million ZEN building at SUNY Poly’s Albany campus, at Dr. Haldar’s direction, the Toas memo states, “an invoice was sent to Shimizu Corp.,” a Japanese construction company, for related expenses.
“Expenses for that event were also charged to a relevant NYSERDA award,” the Toas memo continues. “The Research Foundation’s [operations manager] did not believe billing Shimizu Corp was appropriate, so at [Dr. Haldar’s] direction, staff created a phony SUNY Poly Foundation Invoice in order to obtain reimbursement for a portion of the expenses from Shimizu Corp, even though those expenses were charged to the NYSERDA grant.”
“The reimbursement was diverted away from the Research Foundation resulting in [its] failure to reimburse NYSERDA for a portion of the event expenses,” the Toas memo states. “The failure to reimburse NYSERDA results in an overcharge of that award as result of the ‘double dipping.’”
Dr. Haldar “admitted he intended on using the diverted money for discretionary purposes,” the portion of the Toas memo devoted to the Shimizu episode concludes.
“I strongly refute this claim,” Dr. Haldar responds in the affidavit. “I was under the impression that the money from Shimizu and NYSERDA were part of discretionary funds. No one informed me otherwise, even after I advised [SUNY Poly] finance and the SUNY Poly Foundation of the transfer.”
Dr. Haldar also says he did not direct his staff to create fake invoices: “Their legitimacy is evidenced by the fact that similar invoices were created by my staff on a regular basis over the last several years, and that this process was accepted by finance at SUNY Poly and the SUNY Poly Foundation.”
SUNY Poly, Research Foundation mum
Dr. Haldar’s lawsuit also cites purported minutes of a SUNY Poly college faculty meeting in March of this year, though the exhibit containing the minutes was not immediately accessible via the state’s court records website.
At that March meeting, SUNY Poly Provost William Durgin announced that, “due to issues that he cannot discuss,” Dr. Haldar “was no longer the Interim Dean,” which was met with “general concern…about the opaque and abrupt process surrounding [Dr. Haldar’s] departure,” the lawsuit states.
Spokespeople for SUNY Poly and SUNY RF did not return requests for comment.
Dr. Haldar’s attorney, Thomas Capezza of Carter Conboy, did not respond to requests for comment.
Upon request, the SUNY Poly Foundation provided The Alt a copy of its 2015-2016 financial statements and independent auditor’s report, but did not immediately respond to a subsequent email seeking comment on Dr. Haldar’s lawsuit. The former executive director of SUNY Poly Foundation, who left that position in mid-2016, according to an email autoresponder, did not return a request for comment sent to his personal email address.
The federal Department of Energy, which provided funding for the PVMC project, did not return a request for comment. Shimizu Corporation and SoloPower did not respond to messages sent via their websites’ contact forms. A spokesperson for NYSERDA said the agency does not comment on litigation.
The Toas memo, which Dr. Haldar only obtained in redacted form through a Freedom of Information Law request to SUNY RF, is dated Feb. 17, which incidentally appears to be the same day Dr. Haldar was recognized for “Technology in Energy/Sustainability” at the Albany Business Review’s first-ever “Tech Awards” at the Hilton Albany.
This post will be updated if we receive statements from any of the above-mentioned parties.