On Dec. 10, the United States Attorney’s Office announced the arrest of a couple who had attempted to defraud Columbia of over $200,000 by submitting false invoices for expenses allegedly related to neuroscience research.
John Bzdil III, a former manager of the Pediatric Neurosciences Department at Columbia’s Neurological Institute, and his wife, Heather Brooke Rinehart, were arrested that morning at their home in Allentown, Pa. Both Bzdil and Rinehart were charged with one count of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud, while Bzdil was charged with additional counts of wire and mail fraud. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York released a statement explaining that each charge could result in a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a fine “of the greater of $250,000.”
In 2007, the University paid for a series of invoices authorized by Bzdil that amounted to $112,500, according to a press release from the attorney’s office and a formal complaint filed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In his request, Bzdil asked for funds to reimburse spinal muscular atrophy studies conducted by a Columbia-affiliated medical professional. However, according to the attorney’s office, this research never occurred.
Bzdil and Rinehart were also reimbursed for purported work-related expenses. These invoices covered over $84,000 worth of personal goods—largely cosmetic products—purchased from Amazon.com. The court statement also reported reimbursement requests for over $25,000 to pay for the Skytop Lodge luxury resort in Pennsylvania for a “Rinehart-Bzdil wedding” that occurred in September 2007.
The complaint filed by the attorney’s office stated that the bulk of the couple’s fraudulent activity occurred from around June 2005 to June of this year, with two checks filed in February 2007—one for the amount of $7,500 seeking reimbursement for spinal muscular atrophy research.
In one instance, Columbia sought to reimburse Bzdil for alleged research expenses by requesting funds from the National Institutes of Health, which were transferred to the University and then used to pay Bzdil. The wiring of funds—as well as the transmission of these receipts and payments via private and commercial couriers—resulted in the couple’s mail and wire charges.
Bzdil, 34, was the former manager of the Pediatric Neuroscience Department, according to the complaint. Provided with two University credit cards, he was responsible for the purchase of office supplies as well as the oversight of staff payroll and allocation of research grants to members of the Neuroscience Department. Rinehart, 28, was formerly employed in the fashion marketing industry before working with Bzdil.
The Columbia University Medical Center said in a statement, “We cooperated fully with the US Attorney’s investigation, but have no information on the arrest nor do we as a rule comment on active criminal investigations.”
Investigative work in the case was conducted by the FBI, and the Major Crimes Unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office will be handling prosecution in the case of U.S. V. Bzdil. Following their releases on bails of $250,000 each, Bzdil and Rinehart appeared for a hearing at the Manhattan Federal Court the Friday after their arrest. Since then, a preliminary hearing date has been set for Feb. 11. At that time, the court will determine, among other things, whether and how the case may proceed, as well as admission of evidence.