A full-time engineering professor at Morgan State University was indicted by a federal grand jury Wednesday in an alleged scheme to defraud the National Science Foundation of hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funding.
Manoj Kumar Jha, 45, who oversees the university's transportation engineering graduate program, according to the university's website, allegedly fabricated an elaborate research proposal on behalf of a private company he founded and then applied for funding through the NSF's Small Business Technology Transfer program, according to the Maryland U.S. attorney's office.
According to prosecutors, "the stated purpose of Jha's proposed project was to enhance current models used by highway planners to optimize horizontal and vertical highway routes, and ultimately, to commercialize the result."
Jha received $200,000 to conduct the research but instead allegedly made personal mortgage and credit card payments, paid his wife $11,000 for work she didn't do and wrote himself a $6,000 check, prosecutors said.
Jha, who is also the founding director of Morgan State's Center of Advanced Transportation and Infrastructure Engineering Research, also applied for $500,000 more for the project but did not receive it, prosecutors said.
Jha could not be reached for comment, and an attorney has not entered the case on his behalf. Phone calls to his home in Severn went unreturned.
A university spokesman also did not return requests for comment.
The alleged fraud occurred between January 2008 and July 2009, and involved Jha's lying on grant applications about his intention to take leave from Morgan State to work on the proposed project and about the University of Maryland's being a collaborating research institution.
He also allegedly lied about another Morgan State professor's serving as a scientific adviser on the project and about receiving $100,000 in matching funds from a third party, a requirement of NSF grants, prosecutors said.
According to the university's website, Jha was born in a village in India in 1967. After obtaining a bachelor's degree in engineering, he immigrated to the United States in 1991, earned a master's degree in mechanical engineering from Old Dominion University in 1993, became a registered professional engineer in Maryland in 1997 and earned a doctorate in civil engineering in 2000 from the University of Maryland.
He worked for seven years at the Maryland State Highway Administration, where he served as the "Year 2000 Risk Manager," according to his biography on the Morgan State website.
"He received several awards by the Governor of the State of Maryland for his diligent work towards the Y2K risk management for the SHA," the biography says.
Jha has been published many times — "more than 160 peer-reviewed research articles, including two books and more than 50 journal papers," the biography says — and has received funding from many organizations.
In addition to the NSF, a federal agency created to fund and promote scientific progress, Jha's biography says he has received grant funding from the SHA, the Federal Highway Administration, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Homeland Security, the Army Research Laboratory and Baltimore City.
In February 2011, an investigator with the NSF's Office of Inspector General "sent Jha a letter requesting copies of various documents, including a list of all individuals who worked on the highway project and their time sheets, and the company's expenditure ledger detailing all budget categories," as part of a review of his company's compliance with grant conditions, prosecutors said.
Calls and emails to the NSF and the OIG requesting comment were not returned.
In March 2011, Jha allegedly sent back faked time sheets for a purported research scientist as well as a copy of a faked expenditure ledger "in which he allegedly entered fictitious research expenses in order to conceal the fact that NSF funds had been converted to Jha's personal use," prosecutors said.
Jha faces a maximum 20 years in prison for each of five wire fraud counts, a mail fraud count and a falsification of records, prosecutors said.