SUNY Research Foundation recently provided The Alt a copy of a table that itemizes $69 million in bad debt related to SUNY Polytechnic Institute programs. But extensive redactions and the two organizations’ abiding refusal to field our inquiries make it difficult to understand the new disclosure.
The Times Union reported the “drastic accounting measure” several months ago, based on audited financial statements for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2016. The foundation’s ability to collect the $69 million was “determined to be doubtful,” and at least $56.6 million was permanently written off.
“It is unclear exactly which SUNY Poly program or programs had experienced the delinquencies,” the Times Union observed. The foundation’s spokesman, Peter Taubkin, didn’t appear to offer much help.
“These specific receivables include both service center and labor charges that are not reimbursable from SUNY Poly’s sponsored programs,” Taubkin said, cryptically.
The research foundation oversees about a billion dollars worth of research at the state university’s campuses each year. According to its website, the nonprofit may pre-fund projects before the external sponsor—whether a federal, state, or private entity—pays out the awards.
The research foundation’s write-offs procedure explains, “Bad debt expenditures may result when an operating location”—SUNY Poly, in this case—“does not receive payment or receives a reduced payment from the sponsor, which results in expenditures exceeding cash receipts on an award. Reasons for these unfunded expenditures may include the sponsor’s inability to pay because of a financial situation or the sponsor’s unwillingness to pay based on the results or outcome of the deliverables.”
The table, which we obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request, shows that nearly two-thirds ($42.8 million) of the bad debt stems from service centers—essentially inward-facing businesses, like clean-room facilities used by researchers.
With respect to the other awards listed in the table—there appear to be nine—we are privy to little more than their value. We cannot see, for instance, the names of sponsors or specific awards.
Initially, the redactions were even more extensive. Seven items in the table were unredacted after our administrative appeal. Notwithstanding this partial reversal, the appeals officer otherwise merely restated the FOIL officer’s determination, which itself was essentially a recitation of three statutory exemptions to the law.
State law says that if a denial of access to records is sustained on appeal, an agency must “fully explain in writing… the reasons for further denial.” The state Committee on Open Government, citing case law, has opined that “merely repeat[ing] citations referenced in the initial denial of access” cannot “be characterized as having ‘fully explained’ the reasons for further denial.”
Peter Taubkin and a SUNY Poly spokesperson did not respond to a request to speak to anyone about the table.
Bad debt expenses did not appear in the foundation’s previous four financial statements. The research foundation has estimated that SUNY Poly’s sponsored program revenue will decrease by about $100 million this fiscal year.
Even if the entire table of bad debt were unredacted, it is possible that the underlying reasons for the delinquencies—perhaps the most enduring and interesting mystery in all of this—would not be immediately apparent. While it would seem at least plausible that external sponsors might have nixed arrangements due to the state and federal investigations that eventually resulted in felony charges against SUNY Poly’s now-former president last fall, we cannot ask these entities, since we do not know their names.
Review a copy of the table below.