UC Irvine professor spent $400,000 in federal funds on cameras used on Instagram posts – Los Angeles Times | Episode Movies

Yi-hong Zhou was working as a research scientist at UC Irvine Medical School in April 2014 when she received a strange question from the university’s device managers: Can she confirm that she uses a $53,000 camera in her lab?

Zhou replied that she had never seen such a camera and didn’t understand why the Department of Neurological Surgery needed it. She hardly got an answer, she recalled.

But five years later, the circumstances behind the odd email became clear when another department member met Zhou in a parking lot and handed her a shopping bag containing receipts for the purchase of more than $400,000 worth of photographic equipment, including 14 cameras and 46 lenses, listed . All had been purchased by Frank PK Hsu, the department chairman.

An audit launched in response to Zhou’s later whistleblower report concluded that Hsu, who earns $1.2 million a year, bought the camera equipment with university funds, often associated with “suspects,” according to the auditor’s report or “unauthorized” means.

Investigators discovered that Hsu had a personal website where he listed hundreds of photographs for sale, some costing hundreds of dollars.

But the report remained sealed and shielded from the public until Zhou contacted the Times and a reporter asked administrators about the outcome of their investigation. It was only after the university provided The Times with a copy that Zhou was able to read it himself.

Hsu declined to speak to The Times or answer questions.

Tom Vasich, a UCI spokesman, said Hsu has now repaid the university $404,000 – the value of the purchases questioned by the auditors.

“The university has taken appropriate corrective action,” Vasich said.

Two experts questioned whether the university’s answer was sufficient.

If the same unauthorized purchases had taken place at a private company, said Michael Josephson, director of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Playa del Rey, the employee would “almost certainly be fired.”

“When the consequences are nothing more than, ‘Oh, you got caught, so apologize and give it back,'” Josephson said, “that sends the wrong message.”

“The consequences should be so severe that someone in a similar situation would say it’s not worth it,” he said.

Liz Hempowicz, whistleblower protection expert at the Project on Government Oversight, said administrators should have been looking into the purchases when Zhou first questioned administrators about the missing $53,000 camera in 2014.

“Once you get away with something, it becomes a lot easier to keep going when you think nobody’s paying attention,” she said.

Zhou worked in the department from 2006 to the end of 2013, focusing on research into brain tumors. She then moved to the General Surgery Department and continued to work in her lab.

She too believes that Hsu should have faced more serious consequences given the investigators’ findings. In their view, Hsu’s actions raise questions about his judgment and suitability to care for patients or teach UCI medical students.

“He used government money as his piggy bank,” she said. “He sets a bad example for these future doctors.”

Hsu’s stated reason for purchasing the photography equipment was to create a multimedia center for resident education and community outreach. He told examiners that when he was hired to head the Department of Neurological Surgery in 2012, he received verbal approval from the dean to set up the media lab, adding that he was excited about the offer because he is an avid amateur photographer.

The examiners asked Hsu why he bought so many cameras and lenses for a media lab that was not yet operational. He told them that every purchase has “a specific business purpose.”

In their report, the auditors stated that a media laboratory never materialized. They concluded that Hsu “could not reasonably explain the prodigious amount of expensive cameras or indicate a business purpose.”

The dean who hired Hsu, as well as the current dean of the medical school, told examiners they had “no knowledge” of a neurosurgical media lab, the report said.

After reading Hsu’s explanation in the audit report, Zhou found that more than $100,000 of the equipment was shipped directly to Hsu’s home in Irvine and that he had posted dozens of photos on Instagram showing him using the cameras in the Holidays and personal photo shoots, such as one showing a female model relaxing on a couch with a cocktail.

When asked if the university took any other action against Hsu besides the repayments, Vasich said he could not discuss personnel issues due to privacy laws.

“None of these policy violations have impacted the surgical practice of Dr. Hsu,” he said.

Hsu initially told auditors that he did not have a photography business, the report said. He later changed his story and admitted he sold photos, but said he “didn’t sell much” and that “it was just for fun.”

University of California policy states that employees may not use university resources for personal gain.

Josephson said he thought it was “outrageous” that the university hadn’t done more to ensure its professor was not misusing funds.

Zhou, who has since resigned from the university, said she would like to know why the dean’s office didn’t stop the purchases when she first asked questions in 2014. To operate her lab, she must obtain approval from the dean, she told the office, for any purchase of $20,000 or more. She found that Hsu had purchased five cameras that exceeded that amount.

According to their records, Hsu’s purchases began in 2012, shortly after he was hired.

Zhou said she had grown frustrated in recent years when she repeatedly asked UCI administrators how they handled the detailed evidence she provided in her whistleblower complaint.

In August 2020, a UCI official responsible for investigating the complaints sent a letter saying that investigators had found the purchases to be in violation of university guidelines and that the case was escalated to management had been. Then it was quiet.

Vasich said the dean’s office didn’t need to approve purchases of $20,000 or more when Hsu bought the cameras.

Though the deans told examiners they had no recollection of approving the media lab, the faculty has since pushed it forward. Vasich said the media lab recently went live.

Until Hsu removed many of the photos, his Instagram account showed him using the cameras while traveling to countries like Japan, Australia and Italy, and on the beach at Crystal Cove State Park.

In 2015, a Reuters journalist snapped a photo of Hsu in Paris, outside Notre Dame, with a camera slung over his shoulder. The strap featured the Phase One logo – the camera brand from four of his most expensive purchases.

The journalist asked Hsu that day if the stronger US dollar against the euro made any difference to his trip. He replied that it meant he wanted to spend more money.

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