Danny Olivas’ success as an astronaut made him a celebrity in El Paso. For years, El Pasoans celebrated him. So did his alma mater, the University of Texas at El Paso, or UTEP. He’s the only UTEP graduate to have gone to space. He was also one of the few people who figured out what caused the explosion of the Space Shuttle Columbia in 2003. Because of that, UTEP awarded him with its Distinguished Alumni Award in 2006 – the highest honor for a former student.
But relations aren’t so good between Olivas and UTEP these days. That’s because a 10-month investigation by El Paso Matters found that hundreds of thousands of dollars related to a space safety program Olivas led at UTEP might have been mishandled by the university. When Olivas found out, he filed a whistleblower complaint.
Bob Moore is founder and reporter at El Paso Matters who investigated the financial errors. He says the contract included hiring an outside aerospace company, Jacobs Engineering, which provided scientists and engineers to work on the project. The errors related to that contract ended up costing local taxpayers about $337,000.
“About three years in, the university discovered that it had been paying out quite a bit more for the researchers than what it was billing back to Jacobs,” Moore says. “The university had misread the contract. When they set up the payment procedures, they set in process an underbilling that continued for three years.”
Olivas ended up quitting the project five years after it had started, though Moore says he tried to figure out what went wrong before he left. Olivas says UTEP wouldn’t respond to his questions. That’s when he decided to file a whistleblower complaint.
“You have Daniel Olivas, who is somebody very admired in El Paso, and the University of Texas at El Paso, which is deeply respected in the community, having this really bitter divorce,” Moore says. “We still don’t have complete answers to what went wrong here.”
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Written by Samantha Carrizal.