Friday, January 25, 2008

Lux et Veritas, or Trust But Verify? Yale discovers eDiscovery

Recent amendments to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure concerning the discovery of “electronically stored information” have created headaches for organizations that rely extensively on digital information and communication technologies (ICT's). Which includes most organizations in the 21st century. No fooling.

Roy Poses has written about conflicts of interest and other forms of ethical problems in academic medical centers in posts such as here, here and here.

Add Yale to the list. Further, add Yale to the list of organizations discovering the eDiscovery is no laughing matter. In this presentation (Powerpoint .pps file) by Yale's Information Technology Services entitled "What The New e-Discovery Rules Mean to Me", we discover that Yale has perhaps discovered the wages of professorial sin.

Those wages are June 26, 2006 subpoenas from HHS, NIH, DoD, NSF, and NASA regarding all information related to 47 grants from 13 departments. The FBI was involved, with FBI agents going at night to faculty and staff homes and to one vacation destination for questioning (that must have been worthy of scenes for a movie). The investigations are apparently still underway.

The issues include allocation of research expenses, reporting of faculty effort devoted to grants (i.e., claiming 25% of time is devoted to five grants), and numerous matters relating to grant administration including: cost transfers, allocation of expenses, effort, administrative charging and subaward monitoring, and conflict of interest.

Of note is a Feb. 2006 HHS audit of a Yale subcontract from UMass Medical School causing $194,000 of a $572K NIH award to be disallowed due to irregular cost transfers, effort % allocation, and cost allocation methodology. This may have been a trigger for further inquiry.

For starters, 600+ individuals were named as "people of interest", 400+ accounts were put on legal "hold" status, 100 individuals's disks were 'captured.'

In an example of the perils of eDiscovery and unethical people, an altered email was discovered. A reference to "spending down" a subgrant that was soon to expire had been deleted.

Yale president Levin wrote in the Yale Daily News that "the amount of documents that have been requested by the federal government amounts to ... hundreds of thousands, even millions of pages." An entire floor of class A office space was reserved for the auditors and lawyers reviewing documents.

The IT department actually ran out of tape and disk storage in backup system servers (probably due to legal hold requirements), people became afraid to delete anything, and of course there was "tension" between faculty and administration regarding mandatory faculty training in research administration and in actually obeying the directives for document preservation and retention in fulfilling the federal subpoenas ("Faculty Object to Searches, Yale Daily News, Feb. 2, 2007):

As a federal investigation into possible mismanagement of grant monies at Yale enters its eighth month, some professors are speaking out against what they say is an inappropriately invasive response from the University.

At a faculty meeting Thursday, some science professors said the University is impinging on privacy and academic freedom by copying documents from professors’ hard drives and requiring faculty members to undergo mandatory training or supervision in the grant administration process. But administrators said they have already addressed one of the faculty’s concerns about the training, and that they have simply taken steps required by government subpoenas.

Imagine that, tenured Ivy professors having to undergo mandatory training in how to administer federal money appropriately and turn over records. The horror! Must be a Karl Rove/Joe McCarthy/David Horowitz plot to destroy academic freedom!

The resources required for production are perhaps yet another cost of doing academic business "the old fashioned way."

It is amazing that this story has received precious little coverage nationally. The NYT had a brief article in 2006. I only heard about this recently, from a former colleague. Perhaps this is another example of the Anechoic Effect.

Yale's clinical operations have seen federal investigation once before. See "Insufficient IT Management Depth Results in Justice Dept. Investigation, Millions of Dollars in Fines."

That story was more about incompetence rather than malfeasance, however. Ironically, when I was Yale School of Medicine junior faculty in Yale Center for Medical Informatics, I was charged with teaching postdoctoral fellows about NIH ethics guidelines. The tenured senior faculty I was working for just didn't have the time. See "Anti-social informatics at Yale" for a flavor of Yale kultur:

At that link is a detailed case example from the late 1990’s of impaired efforts to implement clinical information technology via wasted resources and opportunity, attempted misappropriation of intellectual property by prominent tenured faculty for private use, unauthorized practice of law in the Office of the General Counsel, blacklisting, extortion, and retaliation treated with a blind eye and silence by university officials at this prominent university.

I am not at all sorry to see this latest investigation. I believe Yale needs a house cleaning. I am going to attempt via the FOIA to find out who, if anyone, has been found to have been "naughty" via the federal investigations.

While I am perhaps experiencing a degree of Shadenfreude, the current situation is very unfortunate for society, of course. Time and effort that could have been spent improving society is being spent trying to uncover and correct behaviors of the privileged and protected involving taxpayer money -- at taxpayer expense, of course. Let's hope Yale can live up to its motto of "Lux et Veritas." My experiences showed that motto to ring just a bit hollow (or, perhaps a better metaphor would be that the motto was just a bit transparent).

Finally, by way of speculation, the DoD has also had its issues with Yale. Payback time, perhaps?

-- SS

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post. Time and time again it seems that shareholder lawsuits and the law firms that bring them are the first to jump into these situations from a legal standpoint. The blogs have done what mainstream media did not and start to uncover the truth years before litigation does it. But still from a legal standpoint, why is it that private lawsuits form the basis of enforcement in this country. The pharmaceutical indsutry is supposed to be a "regulated" industry. Where is the FDA in all of this? Certainly the FDA cannot be blamed for the reprehensible conduct of Merck and Schering. But in my opinion we are seeing the natural results of a so-called regulated very profitable industry when the regulator is once again asleep at the switch. The FDA is not responsible for the conduct for sure, the companies are and there is no excuse. But the FDA is directly responsible for allowing an environment where such conduct could even be considered. Companies looking at risk in the industry can continuously approach it from two directions: (1) is it clearly wrong or is it in a gray area? and (2) what are the chances we will get caught? Now really ethical companies never need to reach the second question. But for those that do get the second question (and I certainly work for one of those companies unfortunately) the answer is too often "very low." The FDA has created an environment where enforcement is so low key, so virutally non-existent that it has fundamentally changed the way companies approach risk. And the people who the FDA is supposed to be protecting are paying the price.