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Ohio State Suing Over Tainted Grant Process

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Ohio State University has filed suit against the U.S. Education Department, charging that the department failed to provide adequate peer review in the bidding process for the grant to operate the National Center for Research in Vocational Education.

The university, which has been the center's headquarters for a decade, lost the five-year, $30-million grant this month to a consortium of research institutions led by the University of California at Berkeley.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Columbus on Jan. 8, seeks to block the launch of the Berkeley center until a review of the grant applications by a new panel is conducted. The judge in the case has thus far imposed a 10-day temporary restraining order.

The legal action adds yet another layer to the accumulation of charges and countercharges that began last October, when word was passed to Ohio Congressmen that the longtime hub of vocational-education research would lose its federal grant.

Last week, several sources close to the controversy said the Ohio State charges of lax peer-review standards may have some validity.

They disputed the Education Department's claim, when formally announcing the grant award this month, that an investigation by the General Accounting Office had found no irregularities in the selection process.

"None of the panelists are recognized nationally or seem to have the national picture of the field necessary to make this decision," said Andrew Hartman, a legislative associate on the House Education and Labor Committee who attended the briefing sessions on the gao's findings.

"When you are judging contracts for a shuttle engine, you get someone qualified to make the decision," he said.

A g.a.o. official involved in the investigation said that "at best, only two of the panelists were qualified to judge the applications."

Under the Carl Perkins Vocational Education Act, peer-review panelists are to be "nationally recognized experts in vocational-education research or administration."

The gao investigation had been requested by the House Education and Labor Committee and by Senator Howard Metzenbaum, Democrat of Ohio.

Sources in the Congress and the gao said last week that, while the most serious questions raised by the investigation concerned the qualifications of the peer-review panel, other flaws in the bidding process were also noted.

They also said the time allotted for the investigation had been insufficient to delve deeply into any of the areas of concern.

In an interview last week, Bonnie Guiton, assistant secretary for vocational and adult education, said the department stood by its original statement on the team's findings and the award process.

Later, when asked to respond to specific charges from the Congressional and gao sources, a spokesman said that, because of the pending litigation, the department would have no comment on the case.

Panel Selection Questioned

According to the sources, panelists on the review body were chosen last spring by John G. Pucciano, who was then acting director of the office of vocational and adult education. But during the gao investigation, Mr. Pucciano was ill and not available for questions.

Nonetheless, the investigators noted that they had found no apparent criteria used by the department in selecting the panelists.

Mr. Pucciano was given a list of 30 possible panelists from the office's programs branch, but only two of them were selected for the five-member panel, according to Mr. Hartman and a g.a.o. official.

Of the three panelists whose qualifications were viewed most skeptically by investigators, one's only connection to the field was the publication of several secretarial-skills manuals, another's was having been a state legislator, and the third's was having had ties to a technical college, Mr. Hartman said.

The g.a.o. official, who requested anonymity, said leaders of national vocational groups who were read the list of panelists by investigators did not know any of the reviewers.

And in interviews with the panelists conducted by the investigating team, the gao official said, many admitted that they did not know why they had been chosen, or who their fellow panelists were before the process began.

Officials at g.a.o. did talk to Mr. Pucciano last week, after the investigation was closed, but sources said that the information he provided did not justify, in the investigators' opinion, the panelists' selection.

"If these panelists are not recognized experts," said Mike Morris, Ohio State's lawyer in this case, "then in essence there was no peer review."

Another red flag raised by the g.a.o. investigation, Mr. Hartman said, was the fact that the consortium had been allowed to alter its original application for the grant, which listed a consortium of research institutions to be headquartered in Berkeley and to have co-directors heading the center.

Charles Benson, dean of graduate education at Berkeley, and Gordon Swanson, professor of vocational education at the University of Minnesota, were listed on the original proposal as co-directors, sources said.

But according to the gao official, when the tentative decision was reached in late October to award the consortium the grant, the application was altered to designate Berkeley as the single site for the center--with other consortium members listed as sub-contractors--and Mr. Benson as the sole director. Mr. Swanson was then listed as the associate director.

According to those familiar with the investigation, the g.a.o. found that, during the review process, one panelist had posed a question to department officials about the legality of the consortium concept, in light of the fact that the law specifies "a center" and "a director."

The panelist was told by someone within the department "not to worry about it," g.a.o. sources said.

"We think that the way the original consortium application was filed stretched the intent of the law," said Mr. Hartman last week.

Questions were also raised during the investigation about the scoring of the grant proposals and whether the site visits were comparable, Mr. Hartman said.

Each panelist rated the proposals in seven different categories on a 100-point scale. The scores were added together, then averaged to arrive at the final ranking.

After the evaluation of the written proposals, but before the site visits, Mr. Hartman said, scores were tallied on a blackboard to see where each proposal ranked. At that time, Ohio State University was ahead.

Then, after the site visits, panelists were allowed to change some of their categorical ratings, and the rankings flip-flopped in favor of Berkeley, according to a g.a.o. source.

The Education Department denied that scores were tallied midway through the process. But when investigators interviewed the panelists, four of the five said they were aware of the rank order going into the site visits.

Despite the questions being raised about the process, however, Ohio State lost to Berkeley by only 16 points in the raw score and three points in the averaged score.

Those present when the g.a.o. team made its report on Jan. 4 to staff members of the House committee and Senator Metzenbaum's office say it was the narrow margin that made the problems cited seem more crucial.

"Had it been a big runaway, then the flaws might not have been that big of a deal," Mr. Hartman said. "But it wasn't a runaway, and we may not really know who should have won the grant."

It was that sentiment that forged a consensus among the staff members that another panel should be assembled to review the applications.

Mr. Hartmann said he went to the g.a.o. officials' briefing that afternoon at the Education Department, where he conveyed that opinion to the department's staff.

Minutes after the briefing, he noted, the department officially announced that the grant would be awarded to Berkeley.

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