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Yi-hong Zhou was working as a research scientist at UC Irvine’s medical school in April 2014 when she received a strange question from the university’s equipment managers: Could she confirm she was using a $53,000 camera in her lab?

Zhou replied that she’d never seen such a camera and didn’t understand why the department of neurological surgery would need anything of the kind. She didn’t receive much of an answer, she recalled.

But five years later, the circumstances behind the curious email snapped into focus when another department member met Zhou in a parking lot and handed her a shopping bag filled with receipts detailing the purchases of more than $400,000 in photography equipment, including 14 cameras and 46 lenses. All had been purchased by Frank P.K. Hsu, the department’s chair.

An audit launched in response to Zhou’s subsequent whistleblower report concluded that Hsu, who makes $1.2 million a year, purchased the camera equipment with university funds, often using “suspicious” or “unauthorized” means, according to the auditors’ report.

The auditors discovered that Hsu had a personal website on which he had hundreds of photos for sale, some priced at hundreds of dollars.

But the report remained sealed, away from public view, until Zhou contacted The Times and a reporter asked administrators about the outcome of their investigation. It was only after the university provided a copy to The Times that Zhou herself was able to read it.

Hsu declined to speak to The Times or answer questions.

Tom Vasich, a UCI spokesman, said Hsu had now repaid the university $404,000 — the value of purchases questioned by the auditors.

“The university took appropriate corrective measures,” Vasich said.

Two experts questioned whether the university‘s response was sufficient.

If the same unauthorized purchases had happened at a private company, said Michael Josephson, head of the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Playa del Rey, the employee “almost certainly would be fired.”

“When the consequences are nothing more than, ‘Oh, you got caught so say you’re sorry and give it back,’” Josephson said, “it sends the wrong message.”

“The consequences should be significant enough that somebody in a similar situation would say it’s not worth it,” he said.

Liz Hempowicz, an expert on whistleblower protections at the Project on Government Oversight, said administrators should have looked into the purchases when Zhou first raised questions with administrators about the missing $53,000 camera in 2014.

“When you get away with something once, it becomes much easier to keep doing it if you think nobody’s paying attention,” she said.

Zhou worked in the department from 2006 until late 2013, focusing on research into brain tumors. She then moved to the department of general surgery, continuing to work in her lab.

She too believes that Hsu should have faced more serious consequences in light of the auditors’ findings. In her view, Hsu’s actions raise questions about his judgment and his fitness to care for patients or teach UCI’s medical students.

“He used state funds as his piggy bank,” she said. “He is setting a bad example for these future doctors.”

Hsu’s stated reason for purchasing the photography equipment was to create a multimedia center for use in training residents and community outreach. He told the auditors that when he was hired to lead the neurological surgery department in 2012 he received verbal authorization from the dean to create the media lab, adding that the offer excited him because he was an avid amateur photographer.

The auditors asked Hsu why he had purchased so many cameras and lenses for a media lab that was not yet operational. He told them that each purchase had “a specific business purpose.”

In their report, the auditors noted that no media lab ever materialized. They concluded that Hsu “could not reasonably explain or provide a business purpose for the extraordinary amount of expensive cameras.”

The dean who hired Hsu, as well as the medical school’s current dean, both told the auditors that they “had no knowledge” of a neurosurgery media lab, the report said.

After reading Hsu’s explanation in the auditors’ report, Zhou noted that more than $100,000 of the equipment was shipped directly to Hsu’s Irvine home and that he had posted dozens of photos on Instagram showing him using the cameras on vacations and personal photo shoots, such as one showing a female model relaxing on a couch with a cocktail.

Asked whether the university had taken any other action against Hsu beyond the repayments, Vasich said he could not discuss personnel issues because of privacy laws.

“None of these policy violations has had any impact on Dr. Hsu’s surgical practice,” he said.

Hsu initially told the auditors that he did not have a photography business, the report said. He later changed his story, acknowledging that he was selling photos, but said he “does not sell much” and that “it was just for fun.”

University of California policy states that employees cannot use university resources for private gain.

Josephson said he believed it was “outrageous” that the university had not done more to ensure its professor was not misusing funds.

Zhou, who is now retired from the university, said she would like to know why the dean’s office did not stop the purchases when she first raised questions in 2014. In operating her lab, she said, she was required to get approval from the dean’s office for any purchase of $20,000 or more. She noted that Hsu made five purchases of cameras that exceeded that amount.

According to her documents, Hsu’s purchases began in 2012, shortly after he was hired.

Zhou said she had grown frustrated in recent years as she repeatedly asked UCI administrators how they had handled the detailed evidence she had provided in her whistleblower complaint.

In August 2020, a UCI employee in charge of investigating the complaints sent a letter, saying that auditors found the purchases violated university policy and that the case had been referred to management. Then there was silence.

Vasich said there was no requirement that the dean’s office approve purchases of $20,000 or more when Hsu bought the cameras.

Despite the deans telling auditors that they had no recollection of approving the media lab, the department has since moved ahead with it. Vasich said the media lab recently became operational.

Until Hsu took down many of the photos, his Instagram account showed him using the cameras on trips to countries including Japan, Australia and Italy, as well as on the beach in Crystal Cove State Park.

In 2015, a Reuters journalist took a photo of Hsu in Paris, outside Notre Dame, with a camera slung across his shoulder. The strap was emblazoned with the logo Phase One — the camera brand of four of his most expensive purchases.

The journalist asked Hsu that day whether the strengthening U.S. dollar against the euro had made a difference to his trip. He answered that it had made him want to spend more money.

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