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Mine expert from Shepherdstown retires amid probe

By Staff | May 15, 2012

MORGANTOWN (AP) – An international expert on mine safety will retire from his current post as a vice president of Wheeling Jesuit University amid an investigation into how he and the school handled federal dollars.

Wheeling Jesuit President Rick Beyer sent an email to alumni Monday, informing them that J. Davitt McAteer is leaving when his contract expires June 30. The Associated Press obtained a copy, and school spokeswoman Michelle Rejonis verified its authenticity.

Rejonis couldn’t comment on whether the retirement is related to the federal probe and said the email to the Wheeling Jesuit community would be the only formal statement on the matter.

McAteer took over the school’s Sponsored Programs Office in 2005. His attorney, Steve Jory of Elkins, said the retirement has nothing to do with the investigation.

“The timing of this departure has been the subject of ongoing discussions for more than 18 months,” he said. Jory did not comment further.

Beyer’s letter said a search is already under way for new managers for two of the school’s projects.

One is Mining and Industrial Safety Technology and Training Innovation, or MISTTI. The other is HEALTHeWV, a program that deals with electronic patient records and links 41 free rural health clinics together in a single computerized network.

While the search for new project managers is under way, Beyer will administer HEALTHeWV, and James Fleming will oversee MISTTI.

Beyer has previously said that an independent 2008 investigation of the school’s billing practices under federal grants and programs found no violations of laws or regulations.

But federal investigators are looking into whether McAteer and the Catholic school conspired to use millions of federal dollars from NASA and other federal agencies for personal gain.

McAteer is a former director of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The allegations are outlined in an affidavit that an agent in the NASA Office of Inspector General used to obtain search warrants in an active criminal investigation.

Documents in U.S. District Court in Wheeling show investigators believe McAteer and the school fraudulently billed expenses to federal grant programs or cooperative agreements from 2005 through 2011.

Those expenses range from McAteer’s salary – which surged from $130,300 in 2006 to $230,659 by 2008 – to cellphones, computers, technical support and salaries for other staff, including a secretary in McAteer’s private law office.

The affidavit suggests possible grounds for five federal crimes – theft of federal funds; major fraud; conspiracy; false claims; and wire fraud.

McAteer also is director of Wheeling Jesuit’s National Technology Transfer Center and its Erma Ora Byrd Center for Education Technologies, which is named for the wife of the late longtime U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

The technology transfer center does work on mine safety and health, missile defense, health technology and small business partnerships.

The Center for Educational Technologies has housed the NASA-sponsored “Classroom of the Future” program since 1990. The space agency began construction of the center in 1993 and later helped build the educational technologies center.

Between fiscal years 2000 and 2009, NASA gave Wheeling Jesuit more than $116 million, more than $65 million of that after McAteer took over the school’s Sponsored Programs Office.

A finance manager in that office told the investigator that McAteer created the Combined Cost Management Service Center when he took over. Merging the billing of the two centers allowed him “to control and consolidate all the expenses, regardless of whether such expenses were related to the federal awards.”

McAteer was hand-picked by West Virginia’s former governor, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, to oversee thorough, independent investigations of three coal mine disasters since 2006.

The Sago Mine explosion trapped and killed 12 men in January 2006, while the Alma No. 1 mine fire weeks later killed two more. McAteer also issued the first report on the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion, which killed 29.

The reports he authored are now among the evidence that federal investigators are studying.