Jeffrey T. Parsons-Hietikko, a prominent HIV/AIDS researcher who resigned a distinguished professorship in 2019 after a debaucherous work-related party, improperly used federal research funds to enrich himself and take lavish scuba-diving trips in the Cayman Islands, Fiji and Belize, among other locations, according to newly unsealed court documents.
The settlement concludes an investigation that began when Devin English, who worked as a researcher under Parsons-Hietikko, filed a complaint under seal in 2019. English, who is now an assistant professor at Rutgers University, served as a whistleblower to the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York, which alleged that Parsons-Hietikko and Hunter had violated the False Claims Act.
Jeffrey Lichtman, Parsons-Hietikko’s lawyer, told The Post in an email that “There was never any intent by Dr. Parsons to defraud the federal government — which is why he was never charged with a crime. He’s settled this civil matter now and put it behind him.”
Hunter College did not respond on Saturday to an email requesting comment. Neither did the U.S. attorney.
Parsons-Hietikko was a rainmaker for Hunter College, securing an estimated $55 million from the National Institutes of Health between 1996-2018. As director of the Center for HIV/AIDS Educational Studies and Training, known as CHEST, the professor was among a pioneering group of academics who worked to stem the spread of HIV.
But his career came tumbling down in 2018 after a party at New York’s iconic Stonewall Inn, where, according to witnesses, Parsons-Hietikko unbuttoned one employee’s pants and lifted another’s shirt during a karaoke competition. An outside investigator concluded that, based on the preponderance of evidence, Parsons-Hietikko had violated the university’s sexual harassment policy and its drug-and-alcohol policy.
An investigation by The Chronicle of Higher Education found that the university had failed to meaningfully investigate numerous complaints about Parsons-Hietikko in the decade leading up to the party, which was known as “CHESTFest.”
The settlement order assigns responsibility to both Parsons-Hietikko and Hunter College for years of ruses that allowed Parsons-Hietikko to travel the world at government expense and host alcohol-fueled events. The college approved the use of federal grant money to pay for Parsons-Hietikko’s scuba-diving adventures in exotic locales, which Parsons-Hietikko claimed were for research. But he never produced any documents that demonstrated any research actually occurred, according to the settlement.
In addition to unauthorized trips, the settlement states that the college improperly used NIH funds to pay CHEST employees for work on outside projects with private clients.
To retain Parsons-Hietikko, who said he was courted by other universities, the college used grant money to cover $90,000 in bonuses to the professor. But the college did not disclose this to NIH and instead reported that the money had been spent on “organized research,” government lawyers said.
Through an affiliated private foundation, Parsons-Hietikko was granted access to a discretionary account that was created with the “express purpose” of paying for “expenses, such as alcohol” that would not be allowable under NIH rules, according to the government’s complaint. Discussing the account with Hunter administrators in an email, Parsons-Hietikko wrote, “we were told years ago” that the appropriate “code” to use when billing alcohol was “support for professional development/networking.”
Parsons-Hietikko had a “direct line” to Hunter College’s president, Jennifer J. Raab, according to the complaint. In the fallout from the 2018 “CHESTFest,” an internal investigation conducted by the college revealed that Parsons-Hietikko “had misused NIH-funded CHEST staff to generate income for himself,” the complaint said. The findings were shared with the president, but Hunter “failed to take any action” or report the fraud to NIH. The university announced in December that Raab will step down as president in June.
English, the Rutgers professor, is entitled to $120,750 from the payouts for his role as a whistleblower. He said in a statement he would donate the money to “community organizations actually doing the work to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic.”