FOX 13 Investigates: USF think tank's spending

- The USF Global Initiative for Civil Society and Conflict has a long name and a vague, lofty mission.

"Our goal is to re-imagine civil society and address issues of political instability in a globalizing world," says its website, which features photos of staffers standing next to world leaders.

A brochure for the think tank shows a group of 30 interns happily holding up the "Go Bulls!" hand symbol.

But the Global Initiative has had its own major problems, which have not been made public until now.  

The University of South Florida think tank has operated on more than $4-million in state and federal funds over the past five years, but has not clearly accounted for how the public money was spent, a FOX 13 investigation has found.

Last summer, USF College of Arts and Sciences Dean Eric Eisenberg asked the director of another campus think tank to step in and analyze how the Global Initiative was being run. They faced a critical shortage of research funding, and were about to run out.

Among the findings of the internal review, according to public records reviewed by FOX 13:

  • No one was in charge of the financials
  • Employees were confused about who was the director
  • No one kept regular office hours -- including the director

"Director does not clearly understand university financial policy and procedure and will continue to make poor decisions without training and accountability," said a report from Florida Institute of Government director Angela Crist.

Despite the review, Eisenberg last summer renewed Global Initiative founder and director's contract for another three years. Director David Jacobson's current salary and benefits package is worth $220,472.

Among the other findings of last year's internal review: the Global Initiative didn't have a clear mission or measurable objectives; there were no position descriptions.

It's still not clear what the think tank does now.

A closer look at another photo of a staffer with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon shows a sign dated 2004 -- before there was a USF Global Initiative and well before Ban Ki-moon was a U.N. official.

As for the photo of the student interns, the exact same photo is found on a USF College of Arts and Sciences academic advising website. It shows a group of paid faculty members.

RECENT ACCOMPLISHMENTS

Neither Jacobson, nor USF president Judy Genshaft agreed to an interview.  Eisenberg agreed to talk on the phone, but declined to be recorded. He said the think tank is between projects right now.

The director has been travelling around the world to network for the Global Initiative, he said. FOX 13 has asked for records of his travel expenses.

"From my perspective, he's doing exactly what I want him to do," he said about Jacobson.

A USF spokesperson who sat in on the phone call with Eisenberg said she'd send over a list of recent accomplishments and partner institutions.  

The list shows that Global Initiative held a conference in 2014. Before that, there were two conferences in 2012. It shows that Jacobson co-authored some research this year.

It also says Global Initiative has partnerships with eight institutions around the globe. FOX 13 reached out to all eight to confirm the partnership, and heard back from two.

Dietlind Stolle with the Center for the Study of Democratic Citizenship at Canada's McGill University, said the partnership had been an idea that never materialized.

Nicola Phillips with the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom said there was no institutional partnership.

"Indeed, this is the first time I have heard of it," she said.

USF has not yet responded to a FOX 13 request for a response to the apparent discrepancy.

MORE QUESTIONS

Last summer's internal review also had this critical finding: "Grant funds are not being spent and/or tracked appropriately." 

Federal grant recipients have to follow the rules, which include keeping track of expenses. Universities can face fines or criminal charges for mishandling public research dollars. 

USF has refused to release spending details for two federal research grants to FOX 13, claiming the university was "prohibited by law" from letting the public know how the Global Initiative spent public money.

In an email, spokesperson Lara Wade claimed the details were "confidential and exempt under 1004.22, Florida Statutes."

Asked to explain how that statute applied to the requested records, since it pertains to trade secrets produced during university research, Wade replied, "Research records are confidential & exempt pursuant to Section 1004.22, Florida Statutes."

FOX 13 has now filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the records from the federal agencies that sponsored the grants.

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