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Why Didn't An Illinois Professor Have To Disclose GMO Funding?

A WBEZ investigation has found that a University of Illinois professor was given more than $57,000 over less than two years from GMO maker Monsanto to travel, write and speak about genetically modified organisms--including lobbying federal officials to halt further regulation on GMO products.

Professor Bruce Chassy did not disclose his financial relationship with Monsanto on state or university forms aimed at detecting potential conflicts of interest. Documents further show that Chassy and the university directed Monsanto to deposit the payments through the University of Illinois Foundation, a body whose records are shielded from public scrutiny. The foundation also has the ability to take in private money and disburse it to an individual as a “university payment”--exempt from disclosure.

Although Chassy retired from U of I in 2012, he has continued to speak and write on the safety of GMO crops, which are created by editing the genes of an organism. Usually corn or soybeans, the crops are found in more than 70 percent of American processed food products and constitute the majority of Illinois crops.

As recently as December, Chassy co-wrote a three-part series on The Huffington Post calling efforts to label GMO ingredients in the American food supply “a disaster in waiting.” In those articles Chassy identified himself simply as “Professor Emeritus of Food Science and Human Nutrition, University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign.”

To some who study transparency in science, Chassy’s failure to publicly disclose his ties with a company while he was speaking and writing about GMOs crosses a line.

“That, to me, it's a disgrace,” said Sheldon Krimsky, a bioethicist who studies academic conflict of interest at Tufts University.

“At least [Chassy] should have had the courage to say, ‘Well, look, I get some funding from Monsanto.’ But instead he’s pretending to be a neutral, independent scientist.”

As U.S. senators consider two bills on GMO labeling this week, they’ll weigh the value of expert advice. But recent cases involving Chassy and other industry-funded scholars, including one who accepted money from GMO opponents, raise questions about how neutral that expert advice may be.

Some cases already have attracted media scrutiny. A cache of emails unearthed last year through a pro-labeling group’s Freedom of Information request led to articles in the New York Times and Boston Globe, among other outlets.

But the WBEZ investigation takes a closer look at Chassy and the disclosure policies of Illinois’ premier public university.

Specifically, it asks how could a land grant university professor take money from one of the world’s largest GMO makers to do “outreach” on GMOs without telling the public, readers of his articles or graduate students taking his GMO safety course at the time?

What we found is that Illinois policies didn’t just fail to prevent such arrangements; in some ways they actually aided them.  

Chassy and University of Illinois officials have declined interviews on the subject, but through outside interviews and documents—including two years of Chassy’s emails, disclosure records and University of Illinois financial statements—WBEZ has found that safeguards aimed at detecting potential conflicts were not effective in this case and likely would not in the future.  

It starts with the foundation

Chassy’s payments stayed out of the public eye primarily through a mechanism under fire in states across the nation: The use of private university foundations to discreetly accept donations that would be public record if given directly to the university. In this case, it was the University of Illinois Foundation that administered the Monsanto payments.

University foundations were created to conduct private fundraising and asset management on behalf of the institutions. Like most, the foundation at U of I allows donors anonymity, even on targeted gifts for professors, and its records are exempt from public scrutiny—even from Freedom of Information Act requests.

In several emails Chassy specifies to his Monsanto contacts that his payments should not be sent directly to him. Instead, Chassy directs them to be sent through the “University of Illinois Foundation in support of the biotechnology outreach and education activities of Professor Bruce M. Chassy.”

In November 2010, according to emails obtained by WBEZ through an open records request to the university, Monsanto’s head of global scientific affairs, Eric Sachs, corresponded with Chassy to confirm a “gift of $10,000” he had sent “via Fed Ex.”

In an email later that day, Sachs asked Chassy: “Bruce where should we send future gifts ‘in support of biotechnology outreach’ by the University? I have an additional $15,000 planned for later in the year.”

In October 2011, Chassy wrote to Sachs:

“Were you able to find out if you made a contribution to the U of I Foundation Biotech fund in August. [sic] It does not yet show up on my account but that does not mean you didn’t send it. As you recall, sometimes I need to track down where the checks have gone... Regards, Bruce”

Neither Chassy nor U of I officials would comment on why the money was sent through the foundation. But Monsanto spokeswoman Charla Lord said in a statement, “That’s how the University asked to receive these unrestricted gifts for biotechnology outreach.”

In her emailed response to WBEZ’s questions, Lord said:

“Monsanto provided several gifts (or unrestricted grants) to the University of Illinois’ biotechnology outreach program, primarily to help fund domestic and international travel associated with biotechnology outreach to scientists, policy makers and the public. This took place when Dr. Chassy was the Assistant Dean for Biotechnology Outreach. These engagements are important because many audiences want to learn from and ask questions of public sector experts that have experience and have published scientific articles on a range of topics related to GM crop food safety and environmental impacts. Biotech outreach programs exist at numerous universities nationwide, such as University of California Davis, Iowa State University, University of Missouri, George Mason University, North Carolina State University, and Michigan State, to name a few.”

Financial records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) indicate that Monsanto sent more than $140,000 in “biotech research and outreach” payments through the University of Illinois Foundation between 2006 and June 2012, the month Chassy retired. Further documents confirm that at least $57,000 was routed to Chassy over a period of 23 months. This was part of at least $5.1 million that came from Monsanto and through the foundation to university employees and programs between 2005 and 2015, university records show.  

WBEZ did the calculations based on two sets of documents: university documents on money Monsanto gave to the foundation for biotech outreach, matched to dates, amounts and recipients of biotech outreach funding payments to Bruce Chassy.

While most foundations maintain they are not subject to FOIA, some documents can be obtained if they exist in other parts of the university. That’s how WBEZ was able to track the Chassy records. Similar investigations using outside documents at other universities have found other troubling arrangements: no-bid contracts to foundation donors; a new Corvette purchased for an outgoing university president with foundation money; and more than $500,000 in foundation payments being sent to a fired football coach.

Alexa Capeloto is a journalism professor at the City University of New York.  She has been studying transparency questions around university foundations. She says she believes most foundation activities are fair and honest. But, she notes, recent revelations of questionable activity argue for greater transparency.    

“These things came to light under pressure,” said Capeloto. “If there were a law that extended public records requests to the foundation we might more easily know these things. This is a public institution and this money is going to public functions and we deserve to know about that."

The Chicago Tribune is currently suing the College of DuPage on this very issue and expects a decision back this week.

University of Illinois Foundation President James Moore suggests greater transparency could bring problems.

“I think the disadvantages would be that you’d have donors who would be concerned about the protection of their privacy and I think that could affect donor behavior,” Moore said in an interview. “I don’t know, but I know in some states there have been some challenges. And I believe that states should maintain a structure that supports the donors and the institutions in ways that advance the institutions.”

But maintaining that structure also means allowing donors to choose what they do and don’t want to disclose. U of I, for instance, issued press announcements for a new Monsanto-financed soil lab and endowed journalism chair.

“There’s incentive to have your name on a building,” said CUNY’s Capeloto. “You’re supporting the space where this work happens, but you don’t want to be seen as having a direct hand in what goes on there.”

Emails and Collaboration

Chassy’s emails reveal more than payments routed through foundations. They suggest an accommodating relationship with industry executives.

In one January 2012 email, Chassy asks Monsanto’s Sachs to fill him in on what the company wants him to do during an upcoming “mission on China.”

“You originally asked if I would go to China and do what I did in Korea. You wanted to know if I was available and said you would explain later. One thing led to another and now I am going but we never did speak about the actual mission on China. Where am I speaking? To whom? For how long? More importantly what is the topic and is there an assigned title?”

In an April 2012 email, Chassy talks about State Department money he has received to make GMO videos and asks Monsanto for help on content.

“I think it is important that these YouTubes will come from [the food science department] at U of Illinois and will credit the State Dept for support. I would like to see more of them with those credits but State's resources are limited. I am talking to State about funding for additional videos and am also seeking other sources of support for doing more of them.... It would be very useful to me to have a list of videos that all of you think would be helpful. I will put them in my proposals.”

In a November 2010 note, Monsanto’s Sachs talks about funding Chassy’s Academics Review website. Sachs also raises the prospect of “paying experts to provide responses” to anti-GMO studies without revealing Monsanto’s involvement.

“From my perspective the problem is one of expert engagement and that could be solved by paying experts to provide responses.…The key will be keeping Monsanto in the background so as not to harm the credibility of the information.”

Chassy declined to be interviewed by WBEZ, but he did tell the New York Times last fall that the Monsanto money helped him amplify opinions he had already held-- through travel and his website called Academics Review.com. There he identifies himself and his co-founder David Tribe as “two independent professors of food-related microbiology, nutritional, and safety issues.”

The last time Chassy posted on that site was September 2015, just after a smaller cache of his emails, and those of other scholars, came to light through a FOIA request from the organic industry-funded U.S. Right to Know campaign. Chassy’s final post was a long defense of some of the revelations in the emails.

He wrote that industry funding is “appropriate, commonplace and needed to further the public interest.” In his experience, he wrote, the process has been “transparent and done under... strict ethical guidelines.”

At the University of Illinois these guidelines include filling out at least two disclosure forms on outside funding every year. One is for university staff called a Report of Non-University Activities, and the other, for all state employees, is called the Statement of Economic Interest.

WBEZ obtained copies of Chassy’s forms for 2007-2013 and found that—although he listed a subsidiary of DuPont (called Solae) and Dow Agrosciences as sources of funding one year-- his Monsanto payments are not listed.

This does not seem to violate any University disclosure rules.  Because the Monsanto payments were disbursed by the foundation, they were no longer considered “outside money.”  Once it’s disbursed by the foundation, that money is classified as a “university money,” U of I Foundation President James Moore confirms.

And, as it states on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign website:  “Payments received through the University of Illinois are not within the scope of the reporting process, which covers only Non-University income-producing activities.”

Independent journalist and former congressional investigator Paul Thacker says these kinds of loopholes are a problem. In the late 2000s, he pushed for disclosure of outside funding from scientists who also receive federal grants. He says he doesn’t object to industry-funded science per se, but thinks researchers should practice robust disclosure, something that “is just not happening very often.”

“And you can see, I think, very clearly in the GMO controversy where we are seeing a lot of the academics who are speaking up and who are speaking about how GMOs are great or that there is little to no worries about them, but when you peel that back, usually through FOIA requests, you find that they are taking money from industry,” he said.

Monsanto, for its part, says it follows the disclosure rules of each university it funds.

“While each university handles it differently based on the situation, they typically report funding through their internal reporting mechanisms and often the listings are available on their public websites.” Monsanto spokeswoman Lord wrote to WBEZ. “Other times, we may work with a university to issue a press release.  And, of course, this information also can be requested through the more formal Freedom of Information Act process.”

Faye Dong is a former dean of the University of Illinois Food Science and Human Nutrition Department, where Chassy worked. She says that it’s “not uncommon” for “faculty members to receive research funding from” trade groups whose product the researcher evaluates." Additionally, she says, faculty members who receive industry funding are not required to inform students--even students taking classes on that industry’s product.

“The safeguard is that there is a very strong encouragement to publish what the research findings are that were sponsored by that company or commodity organization,” Dong said. “The whole process of the peer-reviewed publication helps to ensure the scientific integrity of the research.… And the author is supposed to list who the funding is from in their publication.”

This applies to research funding--and only in certain publications-- but rules around “outreach” funding are not as clear.

The Huffington Post says it also encourages bloggers to disclose conflicts of interest by including that information at the end of articles. But, as of publication time, no such disclosure exists on Chassy’s three-part series about GMO labeling, which remains on the site.  

Disclosure Policy Reform

Still, some are pushing for greater transparency through better disclosure forms.

In 2012, former Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon pushed a bill to tighten the rules around the state’s Statement of Economic Interest form, one of the disclosure documents that Chassy was required to fill out. Simon’s bill called for more specific questions and tougher rules on lobbying. The bill passed in the State Senate but stalled in the Illinois House. Simon said opposition was motivated in part by a wariness among legislators who wondered: “‘Well, what am I going to have to disclose?’”

“In a state with a history of corruption we have to go the extra mile to make sure that we’re not just doing a good job but that we can demonstrate that we don’t have a conflict of interest,” Simon said.

Simon is currently running for State Senate and says she’d eventually like to reintroduce the bill.

CUNY’s Capeloto says that state bills from  New York and Connecticut for greater transparency in foundations have hit similar roadblocks.

“There’s just so much opposition from the foundations and universities and, to be fair, some very powerful donors,” she said. “There are just so many people who prefer the system the way it is.”

Christine Herman contributed to this report. Monica Eng is a WBEZ food and health reporter. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org.

Editor's Note: Like other media outlets, WBEZ obtained the original cache of Chassy’s emails from organic industry funded group U.S. Right To Know. We then re-FOIAed the same documents ourselves for an original analysis. In reusing a FOIA template, WBEZ accidentally left the name of U.S. Right To Know on one of our information requests. 

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