NY slams Upstate Medical’s no-work jobs after syracuse.com investigation

James Mulder

The Post Standard

Sep 26, 2019

SUNY Upstate Medical University cannot justify millions of dollars it spends on salaries for employees, some of whom get paid for “busy work” or questionable assignments, according to the state Comptroller’s Office.

Those findings are in an audit the state agency conducted in response to a series of Syracuse.com stories that revealed Upstate gave eight employees secret paid off-campus assignments that often involved little or no work.

“SUNY administration needs to take a hard look at how much Upstate is paying certain employees and why,” said State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. “Taxpayers and the public deserve transparency and accountability."

The audit reviewed 38 off-campus assignments for which Upstate paid $1.4 million from 2015 through 2018. At least 20 of the assignments involved employees who got paid for producing reports and studies that were useless or of poor quality, according to the audit.

One 20-month off-campus assignment for which Upstate paid $395,495 was “busy work,” the audit says.

Other reports submitted by employees on off-campus assignments were “copy and pasted” from other sources. One Upstate supervisor said as long as employees on off-campus assignments “ … turned in something, it would be acceptable.”

The audit also found Upstate continued to pay its former president her full salary for five months after she left the position.

The audit also questioned the university’s hiring practices. Upstate defended the payment to its former president, but agreed to follow the audit’s recommendations.

In a prepared statement released today, Upstate said:

"First and foremost, Upstate Medical has a responsibility to attract, hire, and retain the best doctors in our country to both care for patients and also teach future physicians. While we appreciate the OSC’s feedback, we have made changes and are working to streamline our administrative processes to ensure we can continue to competitively compensate top medical professionals in their fields. Our community deserves nothing less.”

The audit found Upstate does not have policies governing off-campus assignments.

Syracuse.com revealed last year Upstate entered into a secret agreement to pay Dr. John McCabe, former CEO of Upstate University Hospital, $660,500 for an off-campus assignment that involved no work. McCabe, who wanted to remain on Upstate’s faculty after stepping down as CEO, said the agreement was designed to make him “disappear.”

The labor agreement between Upstate and United University Professions, the faculty union, allows certain UUP members to get off-campus assignments sometimes done at home, according to the audit. Upstate also gives non-union management employees off-campus assignments. The arrangements are often part of settlement agreements with employees who have been disciplined. Upstate also uses the assignments to remove some employees from campus " ... to ensure safety and protect access to confidential information."

Syracuse.com’s reporting showed employees often get these paid assignments just before Upstate terminates them.

Upstate paid 12 employees a total of $4.7 million in extra compensation for work beyond their regular job duties without documenting the basis of the additional dollar amount or the additional work duties, according to the audit.

“SUNY Upstate Medical University spent millions of dollars paying employees extra salary without appropriate justification,” DiNapoli said.