City Folk: Highway engineer Manoj Iha created something remarkable with his federal grants, now he's going to prison for it

City Paper

Less than a week before his moving day, Manoj Jha doesn’t know where he’ll be living. He knows it will be federal prison, he hopes it will be a minimum security camp, but the U.S. Marshals office has not yet told him, as of Tuesday, Nov. 24, where he will be heading when he turns himself in on Dec. 1 as required by the conditions of his sentencing.

“I’m going to get my new glasses,” Jha says by phone after parking his car. (He doesn’t want to drive while talking on the cell phone, which is both unsafe and illegal). “I’m getting an eye exam done so I have a few minutes to talk.”

Jha, the former president of the Maryland Society of Professional Engineers who taught engineering at Morgan State University until last spring, was briefly infamous in November 2012 when federal prosecutors announced an indictment on wire and mail fraud charges. A civil engineer who formerly worked for the state Highway Administration, Jha had won two National Science Foundation grants, totaling $200,000, and basically taken the money, prosecutors said. Stories ran on TV, and in The Sun, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Baltimore Business Journal, and City Paper.

There was little more coverage of the story until April 2014 when, after a nine-day trial, Jha was convicted on four counts of wire fraud, one count of mail fraud, falsification of records, and theft from a program receiving federal funds. He was sentenced in August to three years in prison and told to pay back $105,726 to the government.

Jha filed an appeal. All the rules and laws he is convicted of breaking are not actually applicable, he says: “I’m sure that I’m innocent. I have been framed by the federal government.”

“This guy’s a hero. He’s a hero. He’s not a criminal,” says Bob Mead, who for years was executive director of the Maryland Society of Professional Engineers. Mead met Jha in the early 2000s when he first started teaching at Morgan State. He says Jha became a friend then because of his boundless energy. He was always willing to testify in Annapolis on behalf of the Society, Mead says.

“He grew up in a town that didn’t have a paved road,” Mead says, “and by the time he’s 35 he’s a leading authority on highway alignment projects. He’s a brilliant, brilliant young man.”

 Mead says Jha, who is now 47, came to the U.S. from India in his early 20s with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from  Durgapur’s National Institute of Technology. He then earned his master’s at Old Dominion University and headed to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in pursuit of a Ph.D.

 “He decides that’s not his future,” Mead says, and dropped out and took a job with an insurance company for a few months before landing in Maryland at the State Highway Administration. There he discovered a state program that would pay for his schooling, so he enrolled in the University of Maryland and took classes at night while spending his days at the SHA building on Calvert Street.

 During that time he returned to Durgapur to marry his sweetheart, who he brought back to Maryland. They settled in Severn and had two children.

 At the University of Maryland, Jha wrote his civil engineering dissertation on highway alignment. “His dissertation is on what this whole project is about,” Mead says, referring to the project he got grant funding for, the funding he got in trouble over.

 And so it is. Jha defended “A Geographic Information Systems-based Model for Highway Design Optimization” in May 2000 to receive his doctorate. In 2002 Jha established a company, Amar Transportation Research and Consulting, to expand, refine, and commercialize the ideas he developed in his dissertation. He started looking for grants to help pay for the work to be done.

Using government maps and databases, Jha created a computer program to help highway administrators choose the best route for new roads. In the past, he says, this was done by hand and eye (and politics), with the highway administration trying to decide which land to seize, rivers to ford, or mountains to traverse.

 “When highway agencies build they look at their cost only, not the user’s cost,” Jha says. “So this project was looking at both—user and highway administration.”

 The concept, based on 15 years of work, was something new under the sun. In 2007 he won a $100,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to help get it going, and managed to get another $50,000 from the NSF after that to keep his business afloat. The program is now up and running, Jha says, with only some work on the user interface and debugging needed to bring it to market.

 “I didn’t quite do it full time like a business,” he says. “A good graphical interface is what I want to build and sell now.”

 Whatever fraud Jha may have committed, he and his collaborators did produce a tangible product.

 Jha says that is all that was required. “It was a fixed price project, that means they pay the money, we do the job,” he says.

 But that is not how the government (or the jury) saw it.

 The problem was that Jha did not follow the rules under which he took the grant money. The inspector general notes in his affidavit for a search warrant that Jha and all the other people who got the same grant had to attend a mandatory training session, where these rules were spelled out in detail by the I.G. himself. The consequences for breaking them were also made clear.

 Jha and his chairman, Dr. Reginald Amory at Morgan State, seemed to agree that he would take a sabbatical when Jha won the grant.

 In 2011, four years after the initial grant, the I.G. audited Jha’s project. It started with letters, and Jha got a lawyer and responded to the information requests.

 The investigation escalated after that. Eventually there was a law enforcement raid on Jha’s house.

The defense, as revealed in available documents, appears focused on suppressing the evidence. The government seized computers with emails between Jha and his lawyer, which were privileged, new lawyers wrote. When the feds raided they searched the whole house—not just the basement office where Jha’s business was domiciled.

Since most of what they got was “fruit of the poison tree”—i.e. an illegal search—the jury should hear none of it, the defense argued.

The judge ruled against him. The jury heard the evidence. There were emails in which Jha seemed to be scheming with the head of another small business to show dummy checks totaling $100,000—an amount that triggered the second, $50,000 government grant. In order to make the outside investment look legitimate, Jha wrote a personal check for $25,000 to another person, who in turn wrote a check for the same amount to KM Infotech, who then cut a $25,000 check to Jha’s company.

“There was never any requirement to put $100,000 [private investment] by a certain date,” Jha says. “But after [his friend] promised it, his business fell apart.”

Jha says that, under pressure of the bogus deadline, he cut corners “and so KMI said you give me a loan for $25,000 . . . and that is the thing that happened. So that is my mistake, and I had a guy on the payroll. I wanted to keep the project going.’’

 Jha says his decision never to take a sabbatical from Morgan State is immaterial, because the supposed grant rule is “not written anywhere.”

And such a rule would be illogical, Jha adds: “If you get someone a job and pay him for an hour, and he gets the job done in 50 minutes, do you penalize him for resting for 10 minutes?”

Jha says he has not gone through any orientation for prison. “I’m looking things up online,” he says. “I’m minimum security so hopefully it will be a camp. I know I will have limited internet access, limited phone.”

On Thursday, Dec. 4, Mead told City Paper that Jha was sent to a minimum-security prison camp in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. 

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