Changhua County prosecutors have indicted a dozen professors from four universities in another round of charges of corruption for allegedly using false receipts to claim reimbursements.
The Changhua District Prosecutors’ Office, which indicted the 12 professors on Friday, said they came from four universities: National Chung Hsing University, National Yang Ming University, National Defense Medical Center and National Taichung University of Education.
Prosecutors said that they received a tip in June that a professor surnamed Hung (洪) and an associate professor surnamed Chen (陳) at National Changhua University of Education had used false receipts to claim reimbursements from the school.
Hung and Chen allegedly took advantage of a regulation in the Government Procurement Act (政府採購法) stipulating that procurements under NT$100,000 (US$3,440) can be carried out without an open tendering process to submit false receipts they received from a New Taipei City (新北市) company, Kuo Yang Scientific Corp (國揚公司).
Investigators later searched the university and the company and said they found that more than 100 professors from all over the country were apparently involved in the scam.
The prosecutors said they were surprised to learn that so many professors were involved. More professors are expected to be indicted in coming days.
Account records seized by the investigators showed that the professors submitted research projects to their schools, the Ministry of Education or the National Science Council (NSC) between 2008 and 2010. They then used false receipts from Kuo Yang to claim reimbursements ranging from NT$50,000 to more than NT$500,000.
Although most of the professors said that they had not used the money to line their own pockets, and that they instead used it to buy equipment for their work, such as copier machines, paper and toner cartridges, they failed to convince prosecutors, who indicted them on charges of corruption or forgery.
Prosecutor-General Huang Shih-ming (黃世銘) yesterday said that professors who work at public schools are public servants and any who are found to have made suspicious claims would be charged with corruption, and not the lesser offense of fraud (詐欺罪), which would be leveled at the private university professors.
If researchers used fake receipts to claim public funds and used the money on research, prosecutors would only charge them with forgery, but if researchers used public funds to buy electronics for their personal use, prosecutors will have to charge them with corruption, he said.
The indictment shocked academic circles.
Vice Minister of Education Chen Der-hwa (陳德華) said that he believed most of the professors made false claims due to expediency, or because they were not aware of the regulations.
Some may have also filed the false claims due to restraints in the reimbursement system, he said.
“The ministry had discussions with the NSC last year about easing regulations to make reimbursement claims more flexible,” he said.
Chen said that despite the charges against the professors, they were elite academics in their fields, adding that nurturing such talent was not easy.
“We will provide judicial assistance if necessary,” Chen said.
National Yang Ming University president Liang Kung-yee (梁賡義) said that being indicted did not mean the professors would be convicted, and that the school would not suspend or terminate their employment contracts, at least for the time being.
Academia Sinica president Wong Chi-huey (翁啟惠) said that using public funds for personal reasons was not permissible, but added that he hoped the prosecutors would show some flexibility, especially toward “those who used the funds for research purposes.”
Wong said that many professors were educated in Western countries and did not know local regulations well enough. Others did not handle the reimbursements themselves, while some purchased computers, but claimed reimbursement for computer paraphernalia.
One National Taiwan University professor said the false receipts stemmed from a possibly flawed system, adding that often professors do not have time to apply for funds to make purchases through the normal channels.
For example, if experimental equipment is meant to last three years, but breaks down after one, it is complicated to apply for funding all over again.
Some academics then use false receipts to pay for new equipment so they can continue their research, “otherwise, it could be even worse if we don’t finish it by the deadline,” the professor said.
Meanwhile, the NSC yesterday issued a press release saying that cases in which research fees ended up in the professors’ pockets would not be tolerated.
However, the council added that if the professors used the funds for research matters, but failed to follow the appropriate procedure, being prosecuted for corruption seemed harsh and disproportionate.
The council said that because exploring the unknown is the essence of academic research, new ideas sometimes come suddenly and researchers may need to make quick adjustments to research equipment or procedures, causing them to deviate from the research project’s original plan.
If the researchers merely violated over-rigid procedures under those circumstances, the council said they should not be be charged with corruption.
It added that nurturing elite academics was not easy and that the demoralizing effect of being indicted under the Anti-Corruption Act (貪汙治罪條例), even if the professors are acquitted, could make it harder for the government to retain and attract such talent.