Usually when we talk of whistleblowers in education, the fraud involves federal student loans and grants, and for-profit schools. But on September 1, 2016, a story broke involving a renowned bastion of higher education: Duke University and certain researchers have had a False Claims Act suit brought against them by a whistleblower. The former Duke researcher alleges in a qui tam suit that research data had been fabricated or falsified, and that the fake data was used to obtain dozens of federal grants.
More than 60 grants totaling about $200 million are involved, with the bad data stretching back to 2006. If the suit is successful, Duke could be required to return up to three times the amount of any grant won with bad data. As the whistleblower would receive between 15 and 30 percent of any settlement or judgment, a win would mean a multi-million dollar award for having the courage to come forward.
The whistleblower, Joseph M. Thomas, brought the suit against Duke University; the Duke University Health System; Dr. William Foster, a retired Duke pulmonologist; and Erin Potts-Kant, a former researcher at the university.
In 2013, Potts-Kant was accused of embezzling from the Duke University Health System and was later convicted. The embezzlement allegations prompted a review of her research findings by the university, and what they discovered wasn’t pretty. Since then, 15 papers authored by Potts-Kant have been retracted, with notices that mention “unreliable” data. The papers were mostly in the field of pulmonary biology. The suit claims that the data was fabricated or falsified under the supervision of Foster, and that the data was used to gain funding from the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency, among other government entities. Furthermore, it is alleged that, when an internal review was conducted, one Duke official asked those who were performing the investigation to communicate by phone so that there would be no paper trail.
While using the FCA for such academic fraud might seem new to you, cases brought by whistleblowers have been successful. A former employee of the Weill Medical College of Cornell University charged that a researcher falsified data and misapplied funding. The college settled for $2.6 million in 2009. Also involving Weill, a fellowship program participant alleged misuse of a training grant; in 2012, the college settled for almost $1.5 million, counting attorneys’ fees and expenses.
If the Duke case is successful, it has the potential to be a blockbuster because of the number of years the fraud continued, the number of grants involved, and the total dollar amount.
Blowing the Whistle? We Can Help You with Your Next Step.
If you think you have the facts needed to bring a whistleblower case, the experienced whistleblower attorneys at the Louthian Law Firm can review your case and help you file the appropriate disclosure statement. Under some circumstances, the government will intervene, or join in your lawsuit.
Your chances of succeeding are greater if your whistleblower claim is substantive, clear, and to the point. Because of this, meeting with a qualified whistleblower attorney can increase your chances of winning. The Louthian Law Firm can help you form your claim so that the government will be more inclined to intervene in your case; government intervention can sometimes increase the chances of recovering reward money. Even if the government decides not to intervene, it could still be a good idea to pursue your case without government involvement. Our strong support system can assist you through every step of the process.
For a free, confidential evaluation of your case, call the Louthian Law Firm today at 1-803-454-1200 or, if you prefer, you can fill out our online contact form.