Animal-abuse allegations tear college apart
Professor Hussein S. Hussein - a whistleblower who sparked a federal probe of alleged animal abuse at the University of Nevada, Reno - is shown outside the university's Morrill Hall on Tuesday, before he attended a disciplinary hearing. At right, a pregnant sow stands in her cage at the university's research farm where pigs are used for skin-cancer research according to Bob Butler, meat specialist at the farm.
RENO, Nev. - In just months, Hussein S. Hussein went from an internationally known researcher who brought acclaim and millions of dollars in grants to the University of Nevada, Reno, to a pariah in the College of Agriculture.
The startling reversal is an unfinished story of dead research animals, hidden surveillance cameras, FBI inquiries into terrorism and toxins and allegations that have split the academic institution wide open.
State and federal investigators are at work on the northern Nevada campus, trying to separate fact from fiction.
Hussein, an animal nutritionist, has filed two lawsuits in federal court in Reno against the university system, UNR President John Lilley and other administrators. He accuses them of orchestrating reprisals and trying to fire him since he complained to the U.S. Agriculture Department last summer about alleged abuse of research animals at the college's labs and farms.
The controversy since has grown to include allegations of illegal disposal of sheep used in stem-cell research, clandestine surveillance, laboratory break-ins and sabotaged experiments.
Among the developments:
l The university brought charges to discipline and potentially fire Hussein, accusing him of violating research protocols by asking an independent veterinarian to examine and draw blood from pigs that Hussein and his students said were being abused. But after seven hours of testimony, a hearing officer and review panel declared the charges groundless.
l A national animal-rights group launched a letter-writing campaign urging the USDA to charge the university with violations of the Animal Welfare Act and the National Institutes of Health to halt stem-cell sheep experiments at the school.
l A state legislator introduced legislation to allow county and city health officers to investigate citizen complaints involving agricultural land owned by the university.
l One of Hussein's graduate students sued UNR, accusing university officials of trying to intimidate her in retaliation for her cooperation in the USDA probe.
Hussein, a native of Egypt who specializes in research of nutrition and digestive-tract microbiology to improve production of farm animals, was the Agriculture College's ''teacher of the year'' in 2001. Married, with a 14-year-old son, he said he always considered himself a ''social person'' - until now.
''I had friends. But since these problems started, I can see everybody on campus is trying to avoid me,'' Hussein told The Associated Press.
''People I used to call close friends, now they are scared to death to be seen with me. It's more than personal. It affects every human being on this campus.''
Hussein believes the reprisals have their roots in his complaints to Lilley, the university president, and others in 2002 about what he viewed as improper hiring practices. Administrators routinely overruled recommendations of search committees he served on, he said.
Hussein said the pressure increased last summer after he notified the USDA of alleged abuse of research animals at UNR labs and farms, including the deaths of dozens of sheep, starvation of cattle and maltreatment of pigs.
Lilley won't discuss Hussein's claims. He maintains the university will be vindicated when investigations are complete. But Lilley acknowledges the claims have taken a toll on the college's morale and diverted school resources.
Hussein claims the reprisals and attempted cover-up go all the way to Lilley's office. He alleges campus police were directed to call in the FBI to intimidate him in February based on trumped up fears that Hussein's lab housed biohazards.
He also alleges Lilley approved hiding a surveillance camera in a smoke detector outside Hussein's lab.
University officials say the camera was to monitor a possible hate crime after professor Esmail Zanjani - the chairman of Hussein's department and a defendant named in one of his lawsuits - found a swastika drawn on Hussein's door.
Zanjani told UNR police he erased the swastika before he called them. Hussein believes the story is fiction, a cover-up for one more step in a plot to discredit him.
''They sent the FBI to my house to harass me as a terrorist. My name is a problem for me, especially at a time like this,'' Hussein told the AP. ''The FBI was told, 'His name is Hussein. He has biological weapons in his lab and there has been a break-in at the lab.'
''In front of my wife and my son, they called me a terrorist.''
The state attorney general's office and the Nevada Division of Investigation got involved in February after it was suggested an outside agency lead the probe to avoid an appearance of a conflict of interest.
UNR police wanted to charge Hussein with obstructing their investigation into the hate crime after a private investigator hired by Hussein discovered the hidden camera and disabled it.
But Chief Deputy Attorney General Gerald Gardner said state investigators determined there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against Hussein.
Todd Renwick, associate director of the UNR Police Department, defended calling in the FBI and denied it was intended to intimidate anyone.
FBI spokesman David Schron said UNR police reported ''homeland security concerns'' Feb. 2 based on information they received ''that there could be some potentially dangerous microbes in this lab where the break-ins were possibly occurring.''
''We determined by the end of the night there was nothing dangerous in the lab,'' Schron said from Las Vegas.
Lilley won't say if he played a role in bringing in the FBI.
The USDA is conducting two investigations into alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act at UNR, agency spokesman Darby Holladay said.
The findings will be turned over to USDA's general counsel, who will decide whether to file an administrative complaint against the school. Violations are punishable by the suspension or revocation of research licenses and civil penalties up to $2,500 per animal per day, Holladay said.
This past week, Hussein spent seven hours before a UNR disciplinary hearing officer and review panel, defending himself against charges he violated research protocols by hiring a veterinarian to examine some pigs.
The officer and the panel found the charges groundless and recommended Lilley dismiss them. Lilley has until May 1 to act.
Hussein said school lawyers have offered him significant payments to settle his civil lawsuits, but he has refused.
''I believe in the truth,'' he said. ''I can't wait to go to court.''