Peers stunned by indictment of lab director from Upper St. Clair
Researchers and scientists said Wednesday they were shocked at the indictment of a federal lab director from Upper St. Clair.
Anthony Cugini, 54, is widely known as a technocrat, a straight-shooting scientist in a post that's often politicized — director of the National Energy Technology Laboratory — several local scientists said. Many considered him a friend and said they had no inclination he was under federal grand jury investigation.
The grand jury indicted him Tuesday on a charge of obstruction of justice. He had other people lie to investigators and destroy or hide computer files and records to protect himself from an internal investigation about whether he misused his office, prosecutors say.
“I feel terrible about it. I know the guy and really, really like him,” said Dick Winschel, director of research services at Consol Energy Inc. in Cecil. “He's been a friend, a personal friend.”
Other researchers in the region echoed Winschel's comments but declined to be named in stories, citing the criminal investigation. Officials at the laboratory's offices in South Park and Morgantown declined to comment or did not return phone calls.
Cugini has not returned messages. He is scheduled to appear in court in December.
Federal court documents contain no details about the allegations of impropriety that started the investigation. He was charged with destroying evidence between Sept. 4 and 24, a crime that comes with a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison, 3 years probation and a $250,000 fine.
A spokeswoman at the Department of Energy's Office of Inspector General referred questions to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Pittsburgh, saying it was involved in the investigation from the start. Officials there declined to comment.
Cugini has a sparse public legal record. There are no personal civil lawsuits against him and no state charges more serious than running a red light in Bridgeville in 2010.
His professional record is extensive, with his time as laboratory director capping a 26-year career at the agency that began when he became a research chemical engineer. He was named a fellow of the American Chemical Society in July and won the Management Division Award for 2011 from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, according to government news releases.
The institute highlighted the laboratory's support for chemical engineers by creating partnerships with the lab, industries and universities, the Department of Energy said in announcing the award in 2011. He created that key home for those partnerships — the Regional University Alliance, a collaboration including Carnegie Mellon University, Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh — when he led the lab's Office of Research and Development, the post he held before his promotion to director.
Cugini received three degrees in chemical engineering from Pitt, the last in 1981, according to his agency biography. He worked at Pentek Inc. and Gulf Oil Corp. before joining the lab in 1987, according to the biography.
As director starting in 2010, he managed 1,500 employees at facilities in five states. The lab has more than $1 billion in energy research projects. One of its highest profile projects is an effort to help coal and power companies capture and store the carbon burn-off that now commonly floats into the atmosphere, trapping heat and helping to cause climate change.
The charges of misuse of office were a big surprise, especially considering how vigilant the laboratory is about any perception of waste or impropriety, said Tom Reed, managing director for marketing and community outreach at Catalyst Connection, a manufacturers consortium. His group co-hosts an annual conference with the laboratory, which ruled out any corporate sponsorships from companies that receive its research grants to avoid any conflicts of interests, he said.
“We find them to be very careful stewards of funding and how things were promoted,” Reed said. “They were very rigid and careful on these kinds of things.”
Timothy Puko and Brian Bowling are staff writers for Trib Total Media.