UNC and ECU settle with feds after allegedly falsifying volunteer hours for AmeriCorps

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UNC-Chapel Hill and East Carolina University reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday after officials said the universities made false claims to get AmeriCorps grant money over five years.

The universities falsely approved and boosted volunteer hours for members of AmeriCorps, a federal agency for community service and volunteerism, U.S. officials said.

In its investigation, the United States found that UNC-CH and ECU “engaged in widespread violations of grant requirements, acted with reckless disregard in causing false claims, failed to maintain proper internal controls, and systematically certified false hours for AmeriCorps Members” between 2014 and 2019, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of North Carolina.

That included electronically approving hours falsely claimed to be worked on holidays and weekends, and excessive hours claimed toward the end of school years. For example, the university certified 16-hour days, which is longer than the typically available service site hours on weekdays.

AmeriCorps provided grant funds as student education awards to UNC-CH and ECU students based on the certifications of service hour. In exchange, the universities agreed to comply with the requirements and regulations. UNC-CH and ECU were specifically required to provide certifications for hours worked for student education awards, including for mentoring, tutoring and college-bound advising programs.

‘Programs were meant to support at-risk and low-income youth’

At UNC-CH, the issues involved AmeriCorps members serving in two statewide public service programs providing literacy tutoring and college admissions advising for high school students, according to the university. The investigation was initiated after a referral of findings from a federal audit from 2014 to 2017.

“These AmeriCorps programs were meant to support at-risk and low-income youth academically. Instead, the universities and agency involved here ran them in a way that allowed participants to falsify their timesheets, and robbed North Carolina communities of the assistance they were supposed to receive,” AmeriCorps Inspector General Deborah Jeffrey said in a statement.

UNC-CH agreed to pay $375,000 and ECU agreed to pay $140,000 to the U.S. government to resolve the claims.

However, each university denies the allegations and there has been no judicial determination or admission of liability.

“UNC-Chapel Hill worked diligently to fairly resolve this matter and strengthen our stewardship of AmeriCorps funding that has benefited thousands of students, college advisers, adult literacy learners, literacy tutors and educators across North Carolina,” university spokesperson Pace Sagester said in an emailed statement. “We take our obligation to strictly follow the regulations that come with those taxpayer funds very seriously.”

Sagester said the university cooperated fully with the investigation and implemented numerous safeguards to ensure future compliance. UNC-CH has established new timesheet approval and verification policies and procedures for current AmeriCorps members that include online pre-approval and review forms, enhanced training and additional supervisor oversight.

‘Firm commitment to protect taxpayer money’

ECU officials could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

“These settlements demonstrate our firm commitment to protect taxpayer money and to guard the integrity of federal grant programs,” Acting U.S. Attorney G. Norman Acker said in a statement.

He said universities and others seeking federal funds must make honest claims for payment and those who do not will be held accountable.

The North Carolina Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service was also involved in the settlement. The investigation found that it also “acted with reckless disregard in making false claims and causing false certifications for employee salaries to administer AmeriCorps programs, failed to maintain certifications, timesheets, and documentation for the separate AmeriCorps work of NCCV employees as required, and failed to maintain proper internal controls.”

The commission agreed to pay $327,500 to resolve the claims and also denied the allegations.

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