COLUMBIA — The University of South Carolina was not aware when it hired a top researcher that he had been sued over allegations that he misused federal grant money at his former school.
Northwestern University agreed this week to pay $2.9 million to the government to settle a 2009 whistleblower lawsuit that alleged pharmaceutical researcher Charles Bennett improperly spent federal money, including on family travel, while at that school.
The suit against Bennett, whose lawyer has denied the allegations, remains pending.
“We were not aware of the lawsuit (when he was hired in 2010), and his background check came back clean,” USC spokesman Wes Hickman said Thursday.
Bennett, who holds an endowed chair at USC and runs a drug-safety center that is part of a special state program, remains employed at the school, Hickman said. But USC is reviewing his grant accounts, a process that could take several weeks.
USC asks job candidates about their criminal history and conducts criminal background checks, Hickman said. But, he added, “Questions about civil issues would only arise if during our review process we find some indication there may be a problem.”
The suit filed four years ago was sealed until the Northwestern settlement was announced this week. Records of the lawsuit did not appear in federal court databases until this week.
A year after the suit was filed, Bennett was hired by USC’s S.C. College of Pharmacy to lead one of the state-sponsored centers of economic excellence meant to boost South Carolina’s economy. The 49 centers at the state’s three research universities have received more than $180 million in S.C. lottery proceeds, and matching private and federal money.
USC is paying Bennett $251,701 a year, including a $40,000 supplement from a USC foundation.
Bennett could be liable for triple damages and fines of up to $11,000 for each violation if the civil lawsuit is proven, the U.S. attorney’s office in northern Illinois said.