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Buffalo lawyer plays key role in major grant-fraud case

When Columbia University agreed to pay $9 million to settle one of the largest grant-fraud cases in history, Buffalo lawyer Daniel C. Oliverio was smack-dab in the middle of it all.

And now that it’s over, Oliverio thinks there’s a message for the University at Buffalo and other research institutions: Watch how you spend your grant money, or else.

“I think its a strong message,” he said. “You’re going to see more of these investigations, and the government is going to come down hard on recipients who can’t account for how they spend their money.”

Oliverio’s firm represented the Columbia financial officer, an Albany man, whose repeated warnings about misspent money in an AIDS-prevention program went unheeded. He eventually filed a whistleblower suit against the university.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan took on the case and recently settled it for $9 million. As part of the settlement, Columbia admitted submitting false cost reports to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“He raised concerns over and over again and was ignored,” Oliverio said of his client. “And that’s how he became a whistleblower.”

The allegation is that Columbia knowingly submitted false information about which employees worked on the AIDS program and how much work was done.

Oliverio said the case is significant because the AIDS program in question is widely considered a success, and yet Columbia finds itself acknowledging wrongdoing.

“We admire and applaud Columbia’s work in combatting AIDS and HIV,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement. “But grantees cannot disregard the terms under which grant money is provided.”

Like Oliverio, Bharara said research institutions, like everyone else, need to be accountable for the money they receive from the government. The settlement involved the trustees of Columbia, as well as ICAP, a Columbia-affiliated public health program.

The initial civil suit filed by Oliverio and three other lawyers – John L. Sinatra Jr., Reetuparna Dutta and Margaret M. Cmielewski – accused Columbia of significant overcharges.

Their client, who has since been terminated from his job at Columbia, will receive a portion of the settlement and has retained them as counsel in a related retaliation claim against the school.