It looks as if some University at Albany professors have been milking the sabbatical system in recent years, sometimes with the acquiescence or even connivance of higher-ups. That’s bad, but not as bad as Susan Bruno, who appears to have taken what amounts to a permanent sabbatical from her job at the SUNY Research Foundation with the knowledge and abetment of her boss, Foundation President John J. O’Connor.
The difference in severity and clarity of the wrongdoing can be seen in who is making the accusations. The questionable practices at UAlbany were disclosed in a state comptroller’s audit released last week, major parts of which were disputed by the school. The revelations about Bruno came in the form of charges brought by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, accompanied by strong evidence that she was routinely paid for not working.
With the professors, the comptroller’s report found that the university’s policies for sabbaticals weren’t followed in some cases and were gotten around in others with the use of paid leaves, which have fewer restrictions. Documentation to justify the leaves wasn’t always sought, and required reports weren’t always filed.
While acknowledging that the university has wide discretion in granting paid leaves, the comptroller’s report questioned their propriety when the university granted them as a hiring incentive or when it was known that the professor wasn’t coming back. In other cases, it appeared they were used as a way to supplement the professor’s salary while on sabbatical, which is supposed to be limited to half the annual salary.
The university responded with plenty of excuses but not very good ones; and refused to seek reimbursement for $1 million or so of questionable payments, as the comptroller rightly recommended.
But these technical transgressions hardly compare to the outright fraud that Susan Bruno allegedly committed by falsifying 47 time sheets that claimed she was working when she herself, in emails, acknowledged she was not — that she was, in fact, doing personal business or political business for her father, former Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno. That figures, because obviously it was only because of him that she had this do-nothing, no-show job, which didn’t even exist until it was created for her.
The good guy of the story was a former supervisor who refused to certify the phony time sheets, causing Susan Bruno to ask O’Connor if she could report directly to him. That was arranged, according to Schneiderman’s filing, and O’Connor certified the time sheets, even though he knew she was doing no work.
If the charges are true, O’Connor was doing more than currying favor with Joe Bruno, he was helping Bruno’s daughter commit fraud and receive at least $165,000 in state funds for which she performed no service.
Schneiderman is seeking from the defendants recovery of the money (with treble damages, as the False Claims Act allows) civil penalties, court costs, etc., which seem entirely justified.