Whistleblower Gets Nearly $34M in Duke University Fake Research Case | Corporate Counsel – Law.com

Duke University campus in Durham, North Carolina. Photo: Shutterstock

Whistleblower Joseph Thomas, a former Duke University lab employee, will receive nearly $34 million after Duke on Monday settled his False Claims Act lawsuit alleging that another lab technician faked research data to obtain funding from federal agencies.

Thomas was aided by his brother, John Thomas Jr., a Virginia whistleblower lawyer whose law firm at the time, Gentry Locke Rakes & Moore, brought the suit. The lawyer, currently with Virginia firm Healy Hafemann Magee & Thomas, remained on board and was joined by Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey & Leonard in North Carolina.

Duke announced Monday it was enacting major compliance reforms and will pay $112.5 million in penalties and reimbursement to the federal government to settle the suit. The False Claims Act permits private individuals to sue on behalf of the government and share in any recovery.

The Department of Justice said the Duke lab technician manipulated or falsified research on federal grants to the National Institutes of Health and to the Environmental Protection Agency for seven years starting in 2006. In some cases, court documents said, entire experiments were not performed while data results for them were made up. None of the research directly involved human subjects.

President Vincent Price said in Duke’s statement, “We expect Duke researchers to adhere always to the highest standards of integrity, and virtually all of them do that with great dedication. When individuals fail to uphold those standards, and those who are aware of possible wrongdoing fail to report it, as happened in this case, we must accept responsibility, acknowledge that our processes for identifying and preventing misconduct did not work, and take steps to improve.”

Duke, a private university in Durham, North Carolina, is a prestigious research school in the state’s so-called Research Triangle. It receives millions of dollars in funding from federal agencies for hundreds of grants each year, the DOJ said.

In its announcement, Duke said it discovered the possible research misconduct in 2013 during an internal investigation after the technician was fired for embezzling money from the university over the same period. The lawsuit accused Duke of not sharing information about research misconduct with the government.

The school denied in court that it was trying to cover up the research fraud, saying it was still working to understand the extent of the misconduct.

Duke general counsel Pamela Bernard referred questions to Michael Schoenfeld, the school’s vice president for government affairs and public relations, who was not available for comment. Duke was represented in the suit by Carol Poindexter, a partner at Norton Rose Fulbright in Washington, D.C. She also was not available for comment Monday.

Duke said it was implementing key efforts to improve the quality and integrity of research conducted on campus, including:

  • The appointment of a new advisory panel on research integrity and excellence. The panel will recommend ways to improve research administration, with a focus on promoting research integrity, by June 30.
  • The establishment of a new, integrated leadership structure for research to provide clear and consistent policy guidance, oversight and accountability for all research at Duke University and the Duke University Health System.
  • A new initiative to promote values and a culture of excellence and accountability at Duke.

In a letter to the campus community Monday, Price and three other Duke leaders wrote, “This is a difficult moment for Duke. This case demonstrates the devastating impact of research fraud and reinforces the need for all of us to have a focused commitment on promoting research integrity and accountability.”

The letter outlined past and future compliance reforms, and then said, “We expect everyone at Duke to adhere to the highest standards of ethical behavior. This includes the responsibility to act with integrity and to report conduct that does not meet these standards. In this case and others, we have seen first-hand that the actions of those who do not can harm the entire institution.”

In the DOJ’s statement, Matthew Martin, U.S. attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, where the suit was filed, said, “Taxpayers expect and deserve that federal grant dollars will be used efficiently and honestly. May this serve as a lesson that the use of false or fabricated data in grant applications or reports is completely unacceptable.”

It was the second False Claims Act settlement with a college since March 21. Last week the University of Wisconsin agreed to pay $1.5 million to settle allegations that it failed to properly account for rebates and credits to reduce costs allocable to federal grants and awards it had received. The university did not admit to the allegations.