Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Federal Prosecutors have launched a gigantic fraud case against Duke University, North Carolina, accusing Duke University of embezzling $200 million in federal research grants, by presenting doctored data with their grant applications.
Whistleblower sues Duke, claims doctored data helped win $200 million in grants
On a Friday in March 2013, a researcher working in the lab of a prominent pulmonary scientist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, was arrested on charges of embezzlement. The researcher, biologist Erin Potts-Kant, later pled guilty to siphoning more than $25,000 from the Duke University Health System, buying merchandise from Amazon, Walmart, and Target—even faking receipts to legitimize her purchases. A state judge ultimately levied a fine, and sentenced her to probation and community service.
Then Potts-Kant’s troubles got worse. Duke officials took a closer look at her work and didn’t like what they saw. Fifteen of her papers, mostly dealing with pulmonary biology, have now been retracted, with many notices citing “unreliable” data. Several others have been modified with either partial retractions, expressions of concern, or corrections. And last month, a U.S. district court unsealed a whistleblower lawsuit filed by a former colleague of Potts-Kant. It accuses the researcher, her former supervisor, and the university of including fraudulent data in applications and reports involving more than 60 grants worth some $200 million. If successful, the suit—brought under the federal False Claims Act (FCA)—could force Duke to return to the government up to three times the amount of any ill-gotten funds, and produce a multimillion-dollar payout to the whistleblower.
The Duke case “should scare all [academic] institutions around the country,” says attorney Joel Androphy of Berg & Androphy in Houston, Texas, who specializes in false claims litigation. It appears to be one of the largest FCA suits ever to focus on research misconduct in academia, he says, and, if successful, could “open the floodgates” to other whistleblowing cases.
The academic whistleblower, who presumably took a serious personal risk to expose this alleged fraudulent misuse of federal funds, stands to receive a multi-million dollar bounty if the embezzlement case is proven.
I somehow doubt this will be the last case of academic embezzlement which will be heard by the courts.