CBC Investigates

U of A hires top American researcher, on condition daughter and her husband get jobs too

The University of Alberta recruited star American nanotechnology researcher Carlo Montemagno by agreeing to his condition that it hire his daughter and son-in-law to work in his laboratory - in addition to his $500,000 a year salary.

University defends hiring researcher’s family, insists it’s not nepotism

Star nanotechnology researcher Carlo Montemagno made the hiring of his daughter and son-in-law a condition of his employment at the University of Alberta. (University of Alberta)

The University of Alberta recruited star American nanotechnology researcher Carlo Montemagno in 2012 by agreeing to his condition that it hire his daughter and son-in-law to work in his laboratory — in addition to his $500,000 a year salary.

Documents obtained through freedom of information by CBC News show the university offered jobs to Jeff and Melissa Germain, for which the couple were not required to formally apply.

Through a spokesperson, Montemagno declined interview requests.

Montemagno is an expert in nanotechnology and biomedical engineering, whose work linking multiple disciplines for research in the areas of health, energy and the environment has earned him an international reputation.

In addition to leading the Ingenuity Lab at the U of A, he also served as director of the biomaterials program for the Canada Research Council's National Institute for Nanotechnology and was its research chair in intelligent nanosystems.

The university recruited Montemagno from the University of Cincinnati, where he was the founding dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

An internal U of A document shows Montemagno sought the nepotism hires in Alberta because he wanted to continue the same arrangement he had at the University of Cincinnati.

It is the same deal he again negotiated when he left Alberta in 2017 to become chancellor of Southern Illinois University - Carbondale (SIU).  

In January, the university's student newspaper, The Daily Egyptian, revealed SIU hired the Germains into jobs which were not advertised. Those hirings are now the subject of a state investigation.

The internal University of Alberta documents reveal:

  • The university appears to have allowed Montemagno to help write son-in-law Jeff Germain's job description as laboratory manager. An early draft of the job description shows a master's degree as a minimum educational requirement. It was later downgraded to a bachelor's degree. Germain has a bachelor's degree in biology but had significant experience as a lab manager.
     
  • The university agreed to pay Jeff Germain a "market supplement" of more than $25,000. Added to his base salary of nearly $95,000, that raised his total yearly salary to $120,000 a year, not including benefits. Germain was later promoted to director of operations for the Ingenuity Lab.
     
  • The engineering faculty also hired Montemagno's daughter, Melissa Germain, as a "laboratory technician" in chemical and materials engineering, the same area as her husband. For 24 hours a week, her starting salary was nearly $3,500 a month.

    While officially employed as a lab tech, Melissa Germain's LinkedIn profile states she worked as a copy editor. She was later promoted to a full-time position as communications director and paid nearly $6,000 a month. According to her LinkedIn account, she has a bachelor's degree in geology.
  • ​The university also initially offered Montemagno an interest-free $1.4-million loan to buy a house. That provision was later changed to an interest-free $100,000 loan and the reimbursement of any mortgage or line of credit interest fees used for a downpayment, provided the cost of the house was not more than $1.4 million. The loan had to be repaid as soon as Montemagno sold his house in Ohio or by June 30, 2017, whichever came first.

Hiring of daughter, son-in-law, unusual: expert

Hiring spouses who are themselves academics is not uncommon in higher education, said Richard Leblanc, an expert in ethics and governance at York University in Toronto. But Leblanc said hiring a child and their spouse is "very, very strange. Very anomalous."

York University ethics expert Prof. Richard Leblanc says he has never before heard of a university hiring an academic's child and their spouse. (York University)
"You want merit-based hiring and merit-based student applications, and not on the basis of favouritism or conflicts of interest," he said.

"You want completely even-handed treatment of staff, of faculty, and of students. And something like this could reveal a culture of, in fact, inequitable treatment, which could be very damaging for a university."

Leblanc also said the university should not be offering loans.

"Unless you are a financial institution — which the university is not, the university has public taxpayer money and the public trust — so offering an interest-free loan for anybody, any faculty member, is highly anomalous, for obvious reasons," Leblanc said.

"I mean, that's not what the university does and it is a conflict of interest because you don't have the ability to let that person go. You are sort of beholden to that person and it is just not a proper use of scarce funding and taxpayer resources, to offer an interest-free loan. It is very strange."

But the university's new dean of engineering, Fraser Forbes, strongly defended the hirings, insisting there was no nepotism involved.

"So it is interesting you have inserted the word 'nepotism,' " Forbes said. "As I said, these people applied for jobs for which they were qualified. They were hired. Their responsibilities grew over the years. Their experience grew. I am assuming that they earned the positions they have."

Forbes also claimed the hiring of family members is common.

University of Alberta engineering dean Fraser Forbes defended the hiring of Montemagno’s daughter and son-in-law. (Peter Evans, CBC)
"As part of (Montemagno's) hiring, you go through a negotiation," he said. "It is not uncommon in the negotiation for there to be conditions around, if a position is available, would a spouse, a family member be hired.

"So that is not unusual and he identified his wish there to hire his son-in-law and his daughter," said Forbes, who admitted he did not have direct knowledge of the issue, had not been briefed, and had not read the internal university documents provided to CBC News.

Although Forbes insisted all university policies and procedures were followed, he acknowledged that Jeff Germain reported directly to Montemagno for more than two years, a conflict which wasn't rectified until 2015.

The hirings added more than $160,000 in salary costs to Montemagno's total salary of $500,000 a year at a time when the university — as it is now — was grappling with budget restraints.

Forbes said the Germains were not paid with university operating funds. Instead, Forbes said they were paid with funds provided to the university by the province and federal government for nanotechnology research.

'Nepotism has no place'

Last month, Alberta Advanced Education Minister Marlin Schmidt sharply criticized University of Alberta president David Turpin's $824,000 total compensation in the context of a four-per-cent budget cut, and increases in tuition for international students and student-residence rates.

Schmidt refused an interview request from CBC News for this story. His press secretary said Schmidt had no time in his schedule over several days to accommodate a 10-minute interview.

But at a media availability Tuesday on new rules to limit salaries of university and college presidents, Schmidt was asked about Montemagno's deal to hire his daughter and son-in-law.

"No, nepotism has no place in any public agency," Schmidt said.

"Our compensation framework really sets out the expectation for all of our agencies, boards and commissions.

"Certainly what executives get paid determines what staff and faculty can bargain collectively. If we establish what the pay at the top is going to be, we expect the faculty and support staff collective bargaining will reflect that as well."

University faculty association president Heather Bruce and graduate students' association president Babak Soltannia declined comment.

Advanced Education Minister Minister Marlin Schmidt refused to comment on the university’s hiring decisions. (CBC)
Leblanc said Montemagno and the Germains would not have received the preferential treatment if the U of A had adhered to a proper conflict-of-interest policy.

The internal university documents obtained by CBC News only include Montemagno's conflict of interest disclosure forms from 2015-2016. He declared that his daughter and son-in-law worked in his lab. But Montemagno said neither of them reported to him.

"The interest-free loan, the payment of interest, the hiring of in-laws, the conflict of interest with a family member, all of this would have been avoided if there was complete transparency," Leblanc said.

If you have any information about this story, or for another story, please contact us in confidence at cbcinvestigates@cbc.ca

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About the Author

Charles Rusnell, Jennie Russell

Investigative reporters

Jennie Russell and Charles Rusnell are reporters with CBC Investigates, the award-winning investigative unit of CBC Edmonton. Their journalism in the public interest is widely credited with forcing accountability, transparency and democratic change in Alberta. Send tips in confidence to cbcinvestigates@cbc.ca. @charlesrusnell @jennierussell_

Charles Rusnell, Jennie Russell