Georgia Institute of Technology President Bud Peterson talks in August about the recent ethics changes Georgia Tech is undertaking. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Tech slow to investigate ethics complaints, records show

Robert Martinengo was a project manager at Georgia Tech when he said he contacted its EthicsPoint hotline in September 2016 raising concerns that his boss wasn’t sharing accurate financial information about his department.

“If I don’t speak up,” Martinengo, 59, recalled thinking, “then I’m complicit in the lie … It was time for me to tell the truth or endorse the lie.”

The truth came out, albeit slowly, in November 2017. The department, Georgia Tech’s internal auditor concluded, “presented inaccurate information” and correspondence to one company, the Association of American Publishers, “lacked transparency.” But it took a year before Georgia Tech completed its report into Martinengo’s concerns.

Georgia Tech President G.P. “Bud” Peterson has promised the university will be more vigilant with investigating ethics complaints in the wake of recent findings that some top officials violated its guidelines. However, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of internal reports and interviews shows Georgia Tech has often been slow to investigate employee complaints about ethics abuses or conflict-of-interest violations.

One investigation that began in September 2016 took 290 days to complete. An investigation of another complaint took 210 days to complete. In one instance, a frustrated employee threatened to share information with a Channel 2 Action News reporter because Tech officials seemed to be dragging their feet.

“Since you have done nothing but tip off the fraudsters and cover your own corrupt doings, this is going to Richard Belcher, so he can do something about it,” the tipster complained on Tech’s ethics website May 15.

Georgia Tech took an average of 102 days last year to investigate a complaint, the second-longest time of any college or university in the University System of Georgia, according to a report presented in April to the state’s Board of Regents. Savannah State University had the longest average time, 135 days. On average, it took 48 days for a University System school to conduct and complete an investigation. Georgia Tech had 85 complaints last year, more than any University System college or university.

Georgia Tech officials said in a statement to the AJC that they’ve had trouble clearing the backlog in investigating some complaints. In some instances, the cases were closed, but not reported as such in their system.

As a whole, administrators said, “Some of the investigations have simply taken too long, and we must do better.”

The AJC obtained a copy of the internal audit report sparked by Martinengo and other documents through the Georgia Open Records Act as part of its ongoing coverage of ethics abuses at the acclaimed university.

Georgia Tech, like all University System institutions, has a system that allows employees to report complaints and wrongdoing by supervisors or fellow employees to campus investigators. Some complaints are referred to Tech’s human resources department. Others go to its Internal Auditor office, which has more than a dozen employees.

Complaints, according to the USG report, range from employees unhappy with their work conditions to discrimination or harassment claims to allegations of fraud or wasteful spending. Last year, 30 percent of those complaints were substantiated. Georgia Tech’s substantiation rate was 29 percent, according to the report.

Georgia Tech’s current annual budget is $1.6 billion, much of it coming from the federal government for research work. Tech has layers of divisions and about two dozen, six-figure-annual-income vice presidents. It’s a dizzying structure that some say operates with little or no scrutiny.

Officials last month released several reports that revealed ethics and conflict-of-interest abuses such as a top administrator who hosted parties for family and friends in a football suite, courtesy of a bookstore vendor; another official who was paid to serve as a board member of a German-based vendor that was paid to provide services for Tech and officials who billed taxpayers for after-hours meals and drinks. Several high-ranking officials have been fired or resigned since the reports were released.

The abuses were discovered through tips to Tech’s internal auditor and to the University System ethics line, but that process took months. One Georgia Tech internal report in January cleared an official, but it wasn’t until a tip came to the University System’s ethics hotline in May that the scope of the situation was fully understood and investigated.

Common Cause Georgia executive director Sara Henderson said the situation shows state lawmakers need to get more involved in how ethics are monitored on college campuses. She called the average length of time it takes for Georgia Tech to complete an investigation “insane.” Henderson suggested Georgia Tech may need an outside organization that could assist in investigating complaints with greater independence.

“You are wasting valuable time and resources (with such delays),” she said. “This is why people complain about government.”

University System Chancellor Steve Wrigley demanded a report from Peterson explaining how Georgia Tech would make changes to avoid such ethics violations. Peterson, who’s been Tech’s president for more than nine years, has vowed “I’m going to fix this.” An update is due in mid-November.

Georgia Tech’s internal audit office previously reported to a vice president but since August it reports directly to Peterson. Tech is now working weekly with the University System to provide necessary guidance and resources for ongoing ethics investigations.

“It is of critical importance that we thoroughly and timely investigate issues as they are raised,” John Fuchko, a University System vice chancellor, wrote Georgia Tech’s president on Sept. 11.

Martinengo, the whistleblower, believes Georgia Tech needs a better system to notify whistleblowers about the status of their complaints and about retaliation from supervisors.

He resigned in July, feeling duress from supervisors after making his complaint. He urged Peterson in an email earlier this month to find ways to make other whistleblowers less fearful about reporting complaints.

“I was treated as if I had done something shameful, when it was my boss who was abusing the system,” Martinengo wrote.

He also asked Peterson to push staff to complete his retaliation complaint. Martinengo said he filed it more than three months ago.

“If you could light a fire under their … seats … to finish it, I would appreciate it,” Martinengo wrote.

College ethics investigations

The University System of Georgia presented a report in April to the state’s Board of Regents on ethics compliance and reporting. Here’s a breakdown of which colleges and universities took the longest average time to complete an investigation in 2017.

College/university average completion time number of complaints

Savannah State 135 days 29

Georgia Tech 102 days 85

Albany State 95 days 62

Gordon State 87 days 14

Atlanta Metropolitan State 78 days 5