CHARLOTTE -- UNC-Charlotte has launched a formal investigation into allegations that its employees skewed a research report to boost support for the city's light-rail system.
The probe, announced Friday, marks the latest development in intense debate over whether the city should keep the half-cent sales tax that generates about $77 million annually to help build a light rail system.
Critics say the report, unveiled in April by UNCC's center for transportation policy studies, manipulated data to make a favorable case for the light rail system.
They say the report's authors acted with undue influence from the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce, a strong proponent of light rail.
UNCC denies any impropriety.
Chancellor Philip Dubois sought the investigation "to assure the public that the study was conducted in an objective manner free from any university administrative or political influence," said David Dunn, a vice chancellor.
"This university holds its integrity in this community at a premium. We will do everything we can to protect it."
The report's release came amid growing opposition to the light-rail system. In May, a group opposing the transit tax gathered 48,000 signatures to place the issue of repealing it before voters this November.
Now, critics allege that the chamber asked UNCC for the report to help bolster the rail system's chances.
E-mails obtained by the Observer show that in March, chamber president Bob Morgan e-mailed Dubois suggesting a study on how constructing the light-rail line compares with transit projects in other cities. Morgan later sent 20 questions he hoped would form the basis for the study, the e-mails show.
Light-rail critics have cited cost overruns among reasons for killing the tax.
Calls to Dubois and Morgan weren't immediately returned Friday.
Martin Davis, a light-rail opponent who complained to UNC system President Erskine Bowles, questioned whether UNCC could fairly investigate the matter.
"They are in a non-academic, partisan way, trying to sway the public to keep that tax," he said. "They'll never admit to it. They'll cloak it."
Critics have also seized on apparent conflicts between e-mail records UNCC released in June and public statements by the study's author, professor Edd Hauser.
Hauser has said he chose to conduct the study after watching officials debate transit issues at a March 26 City Council meeting.
E-mails, however, suggest that, four days earlier, he was already lined up to handle the study.
University officials say there was no discrepancy. They say four days before the council meeting, Hauser was only considering a study. He didn't commit to do it until after the City Council session, they said.
Dunn, the UNCC vice chancellor, said the investigation will focus on the university's research misconduct policy. That policy prohibits "serious deviation" from commonly accepted research practices, including fabrication, falsification or plagiarism.
Asked if the policy would prohibit outside influence in the initiation of a study, he said no. The university has about a dozen research centers, and invites suggestions from citizens about topics to study.
"It doesn't matter how studies studies originate," he said. "Anybody at any time can ask us to study anything. That's why we're here."
Other critics said the study itself doesn't withstand scientific scrutiny.
Jim Puckett, a leader of a group fighting the transit tax, said Hauser selectively picked comparison cities to make Charlotte's light-rail system look good.
"Dr. Hauser clearly manipulated the data," Puckett said. "By cherry picking data sources he corrupted the study...We're completely different than a city running a large rail system because they cost a lot more than what we would have."
Hauser didn't return a call or an e-mail from the Observer Friday. Dunn, the university spokesman, defended Hauser and the study, saying it was solidly done.
The probe will be conducted in the next 30 days by a group of UNCC employees overseen by the school's general counsel, Dunn said.
That news wasn't comforting to Davis.
"I don't hold out a lot of hope for any of this," he said. "But at least (Bowles) was honest enough to at launch an investigation."Staff writer Josh Lanier contributed to this story.
Eric Frazier: 704-358-5145