MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – One of the world's foremost experts on mine safety — from gold mines in Chile to the coal mines of southern West Virginia — stands accused by a NASA fraud investigator of conspiring with the Catholic college where he now works to use millions of federal grant dollars for personal gain and the school's benefit.
The allegations are contained in an affidavit that an agent in the NASA Office of Inspector General used to obtain search warrants in an active criminal investigation of former U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration director J. Davitt McAteer, and his alma mater and current employer, Wheeling Jesuit University.
Court records show investigators believe McAteer and the school fraudulently billed expenses to federal grant programs or cooperative agreements from 2005 through 2011.
The sworn affidavit by an agent who works out of the Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt, Md., said those expenses range from McAteer's salary — which surged from $130,300 in 2006 to $230,659 by 2008 — to cellphones, computers, technical support and salaries for other staff, including a secretary in McAteer's Shepherdstown private law office.
McAteer is an internationally known expert on mine safety who was hand-picked by West Virginia's former governor, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, to oversee thorough, independent investigations of three coal mine disasters since 2006. The Sago Mine explosion trapped and killed 12 men in January 2006, while the Alma No. 1 mine fire weeks later killed two more. McAteer also issued the first report on the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion, which killed 29.
The reports he authored are now among the evidence that federal investigators are studying. Among the search warrant requests were "any and all documents" relating to work done on those three reports, including financial documents, travel expense, time cards and interview notes.
McAteer has also been a media commentator on cases ranging from the successful rescue of 33 Chilean gold and copper miners trapped underground for nearly 70 days in 2010 to the tragedy at Utah's Crandall Canyon mine. That 2007 collapse killed six miners. Another cave-in 10 days later killed two rescuers and a federal inspector.
In examining five NASA grants, the agent found the duties and salaries of individuals "did not, in any way, benefit the substantive work being done on the federal award projects."
"The motive for (McAteer's) actions is evidenced by the substantial sum of money (Wheeling Jesuit) improperly received," the agent concluded.
The university may have been complicit in five possible federal crimes: theft of federal funds; major fraud; conspiracy; false claims; and wire fraud, the document said.
McAteer's attorney, Stephen Jory, did not immediately return a message Friday night seeking comment. University spokeswoman Michelle Rejonis said late Friday night that she has not seen the document and could not comment.
"With regards to the investigation, we continue to cooperate with federal authorities. Because the investigation is still ongoing, any further comment would be speculative," Rejonis said.
The investigation has been under way since May 2010, involving the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Inspector General, the Office of Labor, Racketeering and Fraud Investigations, and the National Science Foundation's Office of Inspector General, according to the affidavit.
The document also suggested there's evidence to suggest that MSHA — the agency McAteer ran from 1992 to 2000 — was also defrauded. Among the titles McAteer has held at Wheeling Jesuit was director of the school's Coal Impoundment Project, designed to inform the public of locations of massive coal waste dams.
The affidavit blacks out all names but clearly identifies McAteer as the author of three reports on high-profile coal mine disasters and the book, "Monongah: The Tragic Story of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster, The Worst Industrial Accident in U.S. History." McAteer wrote the book, which was published in 2007.
The affidavit identifies the university as the institution in Wheeling that was founded in 1954 between the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston and the Society of Jesus of the Maryland Province. Wheeling Jesuit University recounts its history the same way on its Web site.
At least twice, the affidavit said, witnesses interviewed for the investigation warned both McAteer and the school that they were breaking the law. A consulting firm hired in 2008 also made similar warnings, the document said.
"We will slowly work on making this right, but we can't afford to do it at this time," McAteer is said to have told top university officials in response to the consulting firm's conclusion, according to the affidavit.
Documents the agent obtained indicate the school's board of directors deliberately circumvented federal spending rules "for the purpose of sustaining ... its general, non-federal program educational areas."
McAteer also is director of its National Technology Transfer Center and its Erma Ora Byrd Center for Education Technologies, which is named for the wife of the late longtime U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.
The technology transfer center does work on mine safety and health, missile defense, health technology and small business partnerships. The Center for Educational Technologies has housed the NASA-sponsored "Classroom of the Future" program since 1990. The space agency began construction of the center in 1993 and later helped build the educational technologies center.
Between fiscal years 2000 and 2009, NASA gave Wheeling Jesuit more than $116 million, more than $65 million of that after McAteer took over the school's Sponsored Programs Office in 2005.
A finance manager in that office told the investigator that McAteer created the Combined Cost Management Service Center when he took over. Merging the billing of the two centers allowed him "to control and consolidate all the expenses, regardless of whether such expenses were related to the federal awards."
The affidavit calls the handling of federal dollars at Wheeling Jesuit "arbitrary and fraudulent," and cites a 2007 incident in which the Missile Defense Agency "expressed outrage" that McAteer and others weren't working on the agency's program but were still billing 6 percent of the center's expenses to the grant.
In 2008, an unidentified witness sent then-university president Julio Giulietti a letter outlining his concerns that McAteer wanted to charge 75 percent of his salary to the Sponsored Programs Office and 25 percent to the school.
"I cannot legally do this," the employee wrote in a letter marked personal and confidential that was cited in the affidavit. "...These matters concern me professionally, ethically and legally."
In correspondence, McAteer denied doing anything wrong and called the employee's charges "absolutely false."
When Giulietti was fired in August 2009, McAteer replaced him as interim president and served until January 2011, when Richard Allen Beyer began work. The school's board never publicly said why Giulietti was let go.