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Host of Science Friday Settles on Allegations of Federal Grant Misuse

Science Friday

Ira Flatow, public radio host of the popular Science Friday program, and his for-profit corporation, will pay $145,531 to resolve allegations his company misused grant money from the National Science Foundation.

The settlement stems from a 2009 National Science Foundation award of nearly $1 million to Flatow's privately-owned company, ScienceFriday, Inc., for the purposes of "extending the impact of its weekly radio program to a new and younger audience through the use of cyber-space platforms and interactive tools such as Facebook and Twitter."

"I was very surprised when this happened," Flatow said. "I have been writing grants -- applying and successfully receiving grants -- from the NSF for 40 years. I've accounted for my time and the way I spend my money the same way for 40 years. Why I'm suddenly being penalized for conforming to the same standards I have for four decades -- it was very surprising."

Government officials said the grant required Flatow's company, which is based in Stamford, file financial reports and other paperwork detailing how they were spending the money. 

"This settlement is between Ira and the NSF. Science Friday Initiative -- the non-profit organization which produces the radio show -- isn't a party to it."
Christian Skotte

According to the NSF's Office of Inspector General, Flatow's company submitted nine false financial reports, 19 false cash advance requests, and "inappropriately used grant money to cover unallowable and unsupported costs."

"There is no admission of wrongdoing on my part," Flatow said. "I disagree with the conclusions of this investigation. My spending plan and my budget were clearly laid out to the NSF."

"This settlement sends a clear message that recipients of federally-funded grants must strictly adhere to the regulations applicable to those grants," said U.S. Attorney Deirdre Daly, in a news release. "If recipients fail to do so, they risk significant consequences."

Daly also noted ScienceFriday, Inc. and Flatow cooperated with the government’s investigation.

"My office will aggressively pursue those who misuse federal grant funds intended to advance science education," said NSF Inspector General Lerner. "I commend the U.S. Attorney’s Office for its efforts in reaching this settlement agreement."

Flatow's weekly radio program, Science Friday, is run by a 501(c)3 non-profit organization based in New York City, which Flatow said has no federal money right now. 

Spokesperson Christian Skotte, wrote in an email: "This settlement is between Ira and the NSF. Science Friday Initiative -- the non-profit organization which produces the radio show -- isn't a party to it."

But that relationship hasn't always been the case. "In 2009, the radio show and our website were produced by my company, ScienceFriday, Inc., a for-profit company," Flatow said. "We got the grant to produce that radio show from the NSF from 2009 to 2011." Flatow said. "I don't agree with misspending the money. We spent it exactly how we said we would and it was peer reviewed three times -- how we spent it -- by the National Science Foundation," Flatow said. "That grant ran out and at that point we decided to expand our operation, but we didn't want to do it through our corporation."

Flatow said his company had a non-profit educational division, called the Science Friday Initiative.

In 2012, after the NSF grant expired, Flatow said he shifted his entire Science Friday radio staff to that new 501(c)3, which he said qualified for a broader spectrum of grant funding. 

Flatow said the settlement will have no impact on the radio show. "This grant had nothing to do with the Science Friday Initiative," Flatow said. "This was all myself personally and my old corporation, which is still basically just me."

"The radio show is produced by the Science Friday Initiative, which is in great financial shape and is totally responsible for raising its own money," Flatow said. "I am basically an independent producer who was hired by the Science Friday Initiative as the host and executive producer of the radio show and other digital content."

As a result of the settlement, ScienceFriday, Inc. and Flatow won't be able to participate in federal grant programs for one year. Flatow also agreed to a "five-year compliance plan," which will provide strict oversight of any grant management and expenditures.

NPR stopped distributing Science Friday last year. Since January 2014, it has been distributed by Public Radio International. 

Flatow said the move to PRI had nothing to do with the details of this settlement. 

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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