Pilot dual-enrollment project at UF spurs ethics complaint
Published: Thursday, September 19, 2013 at 5:18 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 19, 2013 at 5:18 p.m.
A project at the University of Florida College of Education to develop a virtual dual-enrollment program for advanced high school students throughout the state is at the heart of a complaint filed with the Florida Commission on Ethics.
The complaint claims that Daniel McCoy, the senior director of the E-Learning, Technology and Creative Service Center in the College of Education, violated the state ethics laws governing public employees by using his position to gain an undue advantage he intended to benefit from financially.
If the commission finds probable cause to investigate, and then determines a violation occurred, McCoy will have a chance to defend himself. If the commission rules a violation occurred, he could face a variety of sanctions according to state law, including suspension from his job, loss of pay, termination, and fines.
The complaint was filed Aug. 24 by educational consultant Thomas Griffin, hired in January to advise the college on how to secure state K-12 money to develop an online dual enrollment curriculum with the P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School at UF.
The complaint alleges that McCoy misused his office and its resources to benefit himself and his company, Utrinsic LLC, and help position his company to develop those programs, despite a warning from UF's General Counsel against hiring any outside company to provide programs that UF staff could produce on their own.
Also, the complaint alleges that by recruiting his own company for the project, McCoy created a conflict of interest because he is responsible for the procurement of goods and services for his department and would have been in an administrative position over his own company.
McCoy disputes the allegations, saying he followed the regulations laid out by the university governing outside work, and ultimately didn't enter into a contract with or receive a dime from the university before the project was put on hold.
"We decided not to pursue that path," McCoy said. "I'm not sure what's unethical about that."
The complaint also mentions Thomas Dana, the associate dean of the College of Education, and two college employees who work in IT and educational media, Mark Dinsmore and Jason Arnold. It also describes the involvement of Matthew Hintze, the former owner of The TutoringZone, who is embroiled in litigation with his former investors.
Dana referred inquiries from The Sun to University Relations.
In an email to The Sun, Jason Arnold said, "The University has advised us not to communicate about this matter. I am very sorry."
Dinsmore did not respond to attempts to contact him by phone and email.
Hintze said there was no basis to the complaints.
A request to the General Counsel's office for comment was referred to University Relations, which issued a blanket statement that it had received a "courtesy copy" of the complaint and was reviewing it.
"We do not know if there is any merit to the allegations, but it is important to note that UF does not have any contract with Utrinsic to provide online services to the university," said Janine Sikes, assistant vice president for media relations and public affairs.
Officials said it would be inappropriate to comment further while the Ethics Commission decides whether to pursue an investigation but that it would cooperate fully if the Ethics Commission does decide to investigate.
In the meantime, Sikes said, McCoy Dana have been prohibited from "any kind of involvement in College of Education or UF procurement. They will not be involved in contracting or making purchases."
College of Education Dean Glenn Good did not return calls about the ethics complaint or the online project and directed all questions to the Office of Media Relations and Public Affairs.
The ethics complaint also alleges McCoy disobeyed an order from Provost Joe Glover not to lobby the Legislature without first getting permission from Vice President of University Relations Jane Adams.
"I did advise Dan McCoy not to lobby the Legislature without checking in with Jane Adams," Glover said. "I would tell (and have told in the past) any employee the same thing; it is part of university procedures and regulations. I have no knowledge of any conversations/communications between the General Counsel and McCoy."
McCoy said he and Hintze didn't lobby anyone at the Legislature, although both admitted they spoke with House Education Committee staff and House Speaker Will Weatherford about their proposal to see if it had merit.
The heart of Griffin's complaint has to do with the involvement of Utrinsic LLC, a company formed by Hintze and set up with McCoy as president, Hintze as CEO and Dinsmore and Arnold as officers.
McCoy, Dana and the others began discussing the idea of creating a dual-enrollment program in November, Griffin said. Hintze gave the group the name "Utrinsic," a company he had created to get into dual-enrollment courses, Griffin said.
Griffin's company, Edutech Solutions, was hired by the College of Education to discuss terms for a licensing agreement with the UF Office of Technology Licensing for Utrinsic. Griffin said when he saw the way the group was going, he had concerns about potential ethics violations.
"I worked with ETC and McCoy on the virtual dual enrollment program until it became clear that McCoy was stuck on illegally contracting with Utrinsic, by working both sides of the contract (as a procurement officer and as a vendor)," Griffin said.
Griffin said he sent an email to the members of the working group in January raising his concerns about the potential ethics violations. Among the concerns, Griffin claims McCoy and Hintze used confidential information to develop Utrinsic's business plan, which showed the company's partners potentially making millions of dollars over 20 years based on an estimate of how many students would ultimately be enrolled and how much they would be charged, Griffin said.
The business plan also talked about raising an initial startup capital of $1.5 million from investors, with a potential return for the company's officers and investors in the millions.
Griffin said McCoy was told in a February meeting with UF General Counsel "not to procure contractual services from a private company to create online courses which UF could produce in-house."
Utrinsic's Articles of Incorporation were filed with the Florida Department of State on March 6. Hintze submitted a vendor application in May without disclosing that McCoy, Dinsmore and Arnold were officers in the company.
According to its vendor application, Hintze said Utrinsic would provide "instructional design, course development and production of online courses for the Online Institute of UF, as well as the Dual Enrollment Academy. For these Utrinsic will provide administrative, marketing and operational consulting for UF."
On June 13, Dana reviewed and signed a vendor agreement with Utrinsic.
Griffin said McCoy has put himself in an "ongoing conflict of interest" by competing with his own agency and exercising public administrative functions over his own company. McCoy is in charge of procurement of contractual services for the college. McCoy's Web page said he is "coordinating efforts in e-learning, software development, communications and business development for the College of Education."
Under state law, a public official, employee or elected representative cannot use any information gained because of his or her public position that no other person could otherwise obtain for his or her own direct personal gain.
Also, Florida law says, an agency employee may not directly or indirectly procure contractual services for his own agency with any business entity in which the agency employee or relative is involved.