Students chatting in Morgan State University's gleaming new engineering building grew wide-eyed when a classmate shared the news: A highly regarded professor had been indicted on charges that he defrauded the National Science Foundation of hundreds of thousands of dollars in grant funding.
Manoj K. Jha, director of the university's Center of Advanced Transportation and Infrastructure Engineering Research, was indicted by a federal grand jury this week on seven counts charging that he fabricated key documents for a research proposal and used grant money to pay for his mortgage and credit card bills.
Senior engineering major Samer Alhawamdeh was surprised as he read an account of the charges on his laptop.
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"I don't know what I'm going to do," Alhawamdeh said, explaining that Jha was his adviser on his senior project, which he is set to present this month. "I'm in shock."
Alhawamdeh, who is scheduled to graduate in December, said he worked with Jha for the past two semesters and was contemplating working on his master's under Jha's tutelage. "He is a letter of recommendation for me," Alhawamdeh told a classmate. "That's bad."
Frederick Omanya, also a senior engineering major, said he had taken a review course with Jha just a few weeks ago. "He was a good professor," said Omanya, 36. "He knows his stuff and he is very helpful."
University officials declined to say whether Jha had been suspended.
"We do not comment on personnel matters," said Morgan President David Wilson. When asked whether the university would investigate other grants awarded to Jha, Wilson referred questions to a university spokesman, who said the university could not comment further because of the investigation.
Jha did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
His office in Morgan's newly opened engineering building was locked, as were the laboratories for the Center of Advanced Transportation. Posters listed grants recently awarded to the center, including more than $1.8 million from the Department of Defense.
According to the indictment, Jha received a $150,000 grant in 2007 for his company, Amar Transportation Research & Consulting, to improve the models used by highway planners and, eventually, market the results.
Jha indicated on his application that he would take a leave from Morgan to work on the project but continued to teach full time, according to the indictment. In 2008, to receive an additional $50,000 in funding, he submitted two bogus checks to show the project had received funding from a third-party — a requirement of the matching grants program, the indictment states.
The indictment further alleges that Jha used more than $50,000 of the grant money for personal expenses. He allegedly paid down $20,000 of his mortgage, put down more than $5,000 toward his credit card bills and paid his wife $11,000 — although she had not done any work on the project.
Jha allegedly overstated the level to which University of Maryland researchers participated on the project. The indictment says Jha told the National Science Foundation he gave $20,000 to researchers at that university but did not.
A spokeswoman for the National Science Foundation referred questions to the U.S. attorney's office for Maryland, which filed the indictment.
According to a copy of Jha's proposal to the National Science Foundation, he collaborated with Morgan researcher Min-Wook Kang and College Park professor Paul M. Schonfeld.
Kang did not respond to requests for comment. Schonfeld said that he had been instructed by federal investigators not to discuss the case.
College Park officials confirmed that Jha received a doctorate in civil engineering from the university in 2000. A spokeswoman for the Maryland State Highway Administration said Jha worked as a transportation engineer in the office of maintenance from 1994 to 2001. She declined to comment on Jha's tenure there, citing personnel privacy.