Former UCSD Research Professor and Chief Executive Officer of SciberQuest Inc. Homayoun Karimabadi was charged on Jan. 7, with fraudulently obtaining millions of dollars in government grants and contracts by making false statements to government officials.
Karimabadi is scheduled to enter a deferred prosecution agreement on Jan. 15 in which he may serve up to 20 years in prison and be fined a maximum of $250,000. SciberQuest and Karimabadi agreed to jointly forfeit $180,000.
According to the corporation’s plea agreement, Karimabadi applied for and received grants from the National Science Foundation, United States Air Force and National Aeronautics and Space Administration through both UCSD and SciberQuest.
Administrative Coordinator for the UCSD Office of Research Affairs Patrice Lock stated that the university provided investigators with the information they requested but emphasized that UCSD was not involved with his fraudulent activities.
“Our understanding is that the case focused on Dr. Karimabadi’s lack of full and accurate disclosures on grant proposals to various federal agencies which were made through his private company, SciberQuest, Inc,” Lock told the UCSD Guardian. “No University grants or funds were implicated in the activities of Dr. Karimabadi or SciberQuest, Inc. The actions by the former university researcher were committed through his private company, and are not a reflection of UC San Diego researchers or our research administration processes.”
Karimabadi failed to disclose all of his current and pending grants, thereby overstating the time he and SciberQuest could devote to said projects and failed to mention his full-time employment at UCSD. From 2005 to 2013, Karimabadi received over $1.9 million in salary from SciberQuest due, in part, to the fraudulently obtained grants and contracts, prosecutors said.
SciberQuest was awarded 22 grants worth approximately $6.4 million, eight of which were Small Business Innovation Research grants. The NASA SBIR program funds the research, development and demonstration of innovative technologies by small businesses of 500 or fewer employees or non-profit organizations.
In one instance with the NSF, Karimabadi only disclosed about three months of employment per year when he had actually committed a total of over 19 months of work per year to various agencies.
NASA Inspector General Paul Martin denounced individuals who abuse research programs like SBIR, which awarded Karimabadi and SciberQuest with grants on eight separate occasions.
“Individuals who fraudulently obtain federal research funds earmarked for small businesses deprive others of an opportunity to pursue meaningful technological discoveries,” Martin said in the press release.
U.S. Attorney Laura E. Duffy said in a federal press release that grant fraud is detrimental to places that have a large research presence like San Diego.
“Federal research funding is an important stimulus to local economies, especially in San Diego, which has a large research university presence,” Duffy said. “Fraud in the award process threatens to undermine confidence in the continued federal funding of research and innovation.”
George Fuller, director of the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences and physics professor at UCSD, indicated to the Guardian that the incident is unlikely to have a negative impact on the university.
“I don’t think [the grant fraud] will have any effect for UCSD,” Fuller said. “Asides from it being only one individual, it seems to have a lot more to do with the private company he started.”
At the time he was charged, Karimabadi was employed as a research professor at UCSD in the electrical and computer engineering department and was active as the group leader of the space physics plasma simulation group. Karimabadi could not be reached for comment by press time.