John Bockris may have been foolish to allow a con man into his laboratory to investigate a modern form of alchemy, but he wasn't the only one to make a mistake in regard to Joe Champion. The administration at Texas A&M University showed judgment nearly as bad as that of its distinguished professor in its handling of the Philadelphia Project fiasco.
The obvious question is this: How could a major university accept $200,000 for a project looking to turn mercury into gold? One answer might be stupidity; another is a set of policies and procedures riddled with loopholes. As usual, the truth is somewhere in between.
Most research funding at A&M is administered through one of four system agencies. These agencies handle money given by the government and private corporations for research and development, and the university, in order to cover overhead costs such as supplies and utilities, skims 43 percent of the monies off the top.
But for people who don't want to pay that much in overhead, there is an agency called the Development Foundation, a nonprofit office that administers endowments, scholarships and gifts. The Development Foundation is the almost-exclusive domain of fat-cat alumni and other private donors who want a distinguished chair or a new building named for their family or corporation. Such donors can also fund research, but when they operate through the Development Foundation -- rather than, say, the Texas A&M Research Foundation -- they are given no rights to the results of their research. Nor are they supposed to have much say in how the research is conducted. In recognition of these reduced rights, the Development Foundation takes only 5 percent of these donations to cover its costs.
It was the Development Foundation that Bockris, on March 31, 1992, introduced to Bill Telander, the money man of the Philadelphia Project. On that date, Telander met with Ken Durham, vice president of the Foundation, and was told he could set up an account for the Philadelphia Project, but only if the Project was not dedicated to contract research, i.e. research for which Telander expected a financial return. A week later, Telander agreed to give a $200,000 gift "specifically for work on the Philadelphia Project. " He held out the possibility of another donation later.
Though at least one administrator was reluctant to accept the grant, the project was approved. Durham sent Telander an acceptance letter, in which the Foundation's vice president could hardly have been more obsequious. He apologized twice in the five-sentence note for any problems Telander may have run into with skeptical people at A&M and promised Telander "that we will do better in the future."
Within a month, it was clear that Bill Telander had not just given A&M and the Development Foundation a gift of $200,000, but that he indeed expected something for his money. He began pressuring Bockris to validate Champion's claim that he could turn mercury into gold and threatened to pull the plug on the research if Bockris failed to do so. Telander also made everyone involved in the Project sign a non-disclosure agreement, even though he wasn't supposed to own the process or claim rights to any research results.
Telander, whom Bockris at first described as a man "interested in doing something for science," reminded the chemist that he was "a businessman interested in funding industrial science projects."
It was obvious that something wasn't right. But instead of stepping in, A&M officials began looking the other way. Newspaper accounts would later reveal an administration trying to distance itself from the Project -- but not rejecting its money -- by claiming that it didn't know the nature of the Philadelphia Project's research.
One example of how they played it came from Ken Durham, the first administrator to be approached about the Project. When the Bryan-College Station Eagle asked Durham about it, he replied, "I'm a big Phillies fan, and I thought it was something to get rid of that pitcher who cost us the World Series."
One explanation for A&M's reluctance to pull the plug may be the money Bockris has brought to the university in the past. Records show that between 1989 and 1993, Bockris brought in more than $2 million in new research grants and contracts. And that figure reflected a drop from most of the 1980s, when Bockris averaged over $600,000 a year in new research. In 1986, his continued work on hydrogen-fuel technology helped attract a whopping $1.1 million to A&M.
Moreover, Bockris has helped the Development Foundation by repeatedly going to it rather than the university's other agencies. Since joining A&M in 1978, Bockris has used the Development Foundation to fund a number of his research projects. (Somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million of that funding has come from Houston financier Hampton Robinson.) That may have denied A&M its overhead charges, but it made the Foundation happy. It likely also made Bockris happy, since going through the Development Foundation meant he didn't have to submit the detailed proposals or subject himself to the peer evaluation demanded by the other agencies.
Even when the SEC indicted Telander and told A&M to freeze the funds remaining in the Project's account, the A&M administration refused to rein in Bockris. In fact, if rumors of Aggie alchemy hadn't reached the faculty and press several months later, the A&M administration might still be hoping John Bockris would come to his senses.
In November, the administration at Texas A&M ordered three inquiries. The first considered charges of scientific misconduct by Bockris, specifically whether he misrepresented the Philadelphia Project when he approached the Development Foundation with Telander's money and later conspired to exaggerate the results to lull investors.
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An A&M committee cleared Bockris on those points, saying it was convinced that he was "open about the topic of research" and appropriately skeptical of the results. The second inquiry examined the general issue of A&M's gift and grant procedures. The people running that inquiry also found everything in order. Despite the ease with which a con man had invaded the campus to conduct alchemy experiments, the committee merely recommended that all Foundation personnel be reminded occasionally of university procedures.
The most critical inquiry was the third, an internal audit of Philadelphia Project expenditures. That audit determined that not all of the approximately $160,000 spent on the Philadelphia Project could be accounted for. Auditors also found three pieces of equipment in Bockris' laboratories that were not on the university's inventory list. They also criticized an unapproved consulting agreement and an improper $3,000 payment from Telander to a researcher.
However, the scariest finding might be that Texas A&M University not only welcomed con man Joe Champion onto its campus. It also gave him keys to the chemistry department labs, where he engaged in one of the oldest cons of all -- making gold.
-- Brian Wallstin