Duke University admitted in July that one of its lab technicians had falsified or fabricated research data that helped obtain generous grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), reported foxnews.com.
Last year Joseph Thomas, a former Lab analyst at Duke in Durham, NC, brought a federal whistleblower lawsuit claiming that research data allegedly faked by Erin Potts-Kant, an eight-year employee of the medical school, was used by Duke and some of its professors to fraudulently obtain more than 60 federal grants worth some $200 million. Thomas also claims Duke tried to hide the alleged fraud. Potts-Kant’s lawyer said she had admitted to generating “altered experiment data” that she “knew was false.” The university tried to have Thomas’ suit dismissed.
Potts-Kant came to the attention of university officials in 2013, when she was arrested on charges of embezzlement. The researcher later pled guilty to siphoning more than $25,000 from the Duke University Health System, buying merchandise from Amazon, Walmart, and Target, paid a fine, and was sentenced to probation and community service.
Then, according to Science magazine, “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 Fifteen of her papers, mostly dealing with pulmonary biology, have now been retracted, with many notices citing ‘unreliable’ data.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.”
The law rewards whistleblowers if their federal lawsuits, known as qui tam suits, recover funds for the government. Thomas’s suit, brought under the federal False Claims Act (FCA), if successful, could force Duke to repay the U.S. government up to three times the amount, as well as a multimillion-dollar payout to the whistleblower. This makes it one of the largest FCA suits ever to focus on research misconduct in academia. Said one legal observer, the lawsuit, if successful, could “open the floodgates” to similar whistle-blowing cases.
Whistleblowers filed a record 754 FCA cases in 2013, and last year alone won nearly $600 million. The U.S. government, meanwhile, has recouped more than $3.5 billion annually from FCA cases in recent years.
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