Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute Foundation accuses FAU of “brazen power play”

A Harbor Branch scientist runs a DNA test.

The decade-old marriage between Florida Atlantic University and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute seems to have soured.

In a lawsuit filed in St. Lucie County, the nonprofit Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute Foundation accuses FAU of “a brazen power play” aimed at seizing control of the Harbor Branch foundation’s $68 million endowment and the millions it receives from the sale of specialty license plates. The Harbor Branch foundation said FAU told the marine science center of its plan to eliminate the position of foundation Chief Executive Katha Kissman. Her role would be taken by Daniel Flynn, the school’s vice president of research, the suit said.

“FAU intends to impermissibly take over Harbor Branch’s grant-making function, thus eliminating any oversight, transparency and accountability for the funds that Harbor Branch provides to FAU,” the suit said.

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Asked about the dispute, FAU said the Harbor Branch foundation misunderstood the school’s intentions.

“FAU is surprised and disappointed that HBOI Foundation has misinterpreted our commitment to our partnership and to our shared responsibility for efficient and proper stewardship of our resources,” a spokeswoman said in a written statement. “This lawsuit is an unfortunate distraction that we hope to move past quickly so we can return to achieving our shared goals to fill our respective missions.”

The nonprofit Harbor Branch foundation and the state university entered into a partnership in 2007. Harbor Branch gave 138 acres along the Intracoastal Waterway in St. Lucie County to the state, and the state in turn leased the property to FAU.

Since 2008, Harbor Branch has received nearly $25 million from sales of Florida tags with the slogans Protect Wild Dolphins, Protect Florida Whales, Save Our Seas and Aquaculture.

For the year ending June 30, 2015, the Harbor Branch foundation’s tax return showed revenue of $4.7 million, expenses of $6 million and net assets of $68.7 million.

UPDATE: In a February column that appeared on tcpalm.com, FAU President John Kelly wrote: “The annual budget of Harbor Branch is approximately $21.2 million. Of this, approximately $8 million comes from grants, $9 million comes from FAU’s central budget, $2 million comes from a state license plate program that supports research at Harbor Branch and another $2 million is from the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute Foundation.”

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