Two University of Houston professors are facing federal charges for making false statements and wire fraud as part of a 29-count indictment, according to the United States Attorneys' Office.
Authorities said Abdelhak Bensaoula, Ph.D., 57, and David Starikov, Ph.D, 58, surrendered to authorities Monday morning.
Officials said Bensaoula and Starikov are professors in the Physics Department at the University of Houston.
Court documents state the charges stem from obtaining federal funds for research grants.
The indictment, returned on Thursday, alleges one count of conspiracy, seven counts of making false statements and 21 counts of wire fraud, all in connection with the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, according to federal authorities.
According to the indictment, both men allegedly started Integrated Micro Sensors Inc. (IMS), a small business which applied for and received SBIR grants or contracts from NASA, National Science Foundation, Department of Energy and the United States Air Force.
Authorities allege Bensaoula and Starikov made false statements in the application and proposal processes and in filing electronic claims for payment after they were awarded grants or contracts.
On behalf of IMS, authorities allege both professors used false and fraudulent letters of support and made false representations with regards to facilities, equipment and materials. The indictment also alleges Bensaoula and Starikov stated in proposals that IMS would pay a required subcontract fee to the University of Houston, which did not happen in four of the five contracts.
Authorities said Bensaoula and Starikov, through IMS, allegedly applied for and received at least 25 SBIR grants between 2000 and 2013. Between 2008 and 2013, the professors and IMS allegedly received at least five SBIR contracts for approximately $1.3 million.
Federal authorities allege Bensaoula and Starikov tried to hide this from detection from the government and university officials.
Officials said if convicted of the conspiracy, both face up to a five-year prison term, as well as another five years upon each conviction of making false statements. For the wire fraud charges, the men face up to 20 years for each conviction. All charges also carry a possible $250,000 fine.
UH said Starikov and Bensaoula are not currently teaching any classes. However, Bensaoula is advising Ph.D. students. The university said other faculty will be assigned to that role until the May 9 graduation to make sure students receive all the support they need.
U of H students we talked to on campus Monday don't know the professors and hadn't heard about the allegations but say the charges against them clearly set a bad example.
"As a graduate student, I know that we have advisors who work really hard to obtain research grants. I mean a lot of work goes behind it," said Ruta Sawant.
"When you find out a professor is doing something like this. That's concerning," said Henry Nguyen.
The University of Houston released the following statement Monday:
"The University of Houston is committed to maintaining a research environment that promotes attention to the highest ethical standards for all sponsored and non-sponsored research.
"The University is aware of the allegations in the indictment against two professors and has cooperated fully with the U.S. Attorney’s Office throughout this investigation, and will continue to do so.
"We have been assured by the U.S. Attorney’s Office that the University is not the target of the investigation and that “the defendants attempted to hide their scheme from detection by the government and University officials.” If the allegations are proven to be true, the University also has suffered fraud and has been victimized in this incident.
"As it is an ongoing federal investigation, the University will have no further comment."
U of H said the professors are currently not teaching any classes and doesn't believe any current student projects will be negatively impacted.
Bensaoula's attorney, Chip Lewis, released the following statement Tuesday morning:
"I am disappointed the government chose to indict Dr. Bensaoula. He has been a highly esteemed, decorated and loyal professor at U of H for years. The allegations center on bookkeeping practices and procurement his partner put together."