A university professor secretly used HIV research grants to bankroll his lavish lifestyle, which included numerous vacations, international flights and a birthday blowout at a tropical resort, according to federal officials.
Jeffrey Parsons-Hietikko, a former Hunter College professor and head of the New York school’s Center for HIV Educational Studies, known as CHEST, admitted to wrongdoing and agreed to pay $375,000 to the government as part of a settlement announced on Jan. 30 by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
The settlement is the culmination of an investigation that began in 2019 when one of Parsons-Hietikko’s colleagues filed a complaint alleging he had been inappropriately invoicing personal expenses to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for years, according to court documents.
An attorney for Parsons-Hietikko did not immediately respond to a request for comment from McClatchy News on Jan. 31.
Parsons-Hietikko, 55, was considered a magnet for federal research funding at Hunter College in the early 2000s, officials said. In the wake of the AIDS pandemic, the NIH began pouring money into HIV research, Parsons-Hietikko’s area of expertise.
He “maintained more federal grants, at higher funding levels and across a broader range of research areas, than any other Hunter researcher,” according to court documents.
At the peak of his fundraising success, Parsons-Hietikko’s research center, CHEST, possessed $9 million in federal grants, officials said. As his star rose, and he became one of the university’s “most prized faculty members,” he pushed for greater control over the grants. He was given direct access in 2007, allowing him to submit receipts for reimbursement and to withdraw cash advances, officials said.
Parsons-Hietikko began using the account as his personal piggy bank as early as 2013, requesting reimbursements for scuba diving trips to Fiji, Cuba, and the Cayman Islands, among other tropical getaways, according to officials.
He also sought repayment for a $12,000 business class ticket to South Africa, expenses related to a birthday party celebration at a Puerto Rico resort, and for work he did as a private consultant, officials said.
Additionally, members of Hunter College’s administration regularly siphoned funds from the NIH grants to Parsons-Hietikko in the form of bonuses, officials said. In total, nearly $100,000 earmarked for HIV research was paid to Parsons-Hietikko to boost his compensation.
When Parsons-Hietikko parted ways with Hunter College in 2019, it was not related to his purported role in looting grant money, but because allegations of sexual harassment arose, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported in November 2021.
The administration “swiftly removed [him] from campus when allegations of his misconduct surfaced,” a spokesperson for the university told McClatchy News.
The same year, Devin English, a former colleague of Parsons-Hietikko, filed the complaint that triggered a government investigation and subsequent settlement. In addition to Parsons-Hietikko’s settlement payment, Hunter College acknowledged it misallocated grant money and agreed to pay $200,000 to the government.
“For years, HIV/AIDS funds have been wasted by individuals and institutions like Jeffrey Parsons and Hunter College, instead of reaching the LGBTQ+ communities being devastated by the public health crisis,” English said in a statement to McClatchy News, adding “we must do more to make sure federal HIV/AIDS resources are going to those who need them most.”