Duke University has agreed to pay the U.S. government $112.5 million to resolve a False Claims Act lawsuit brought by a whistleblower whose allegations of research fraud have cast a cloud over the esteemed university since 2013.
The agreement settles a lawsuit brought by Joseph Thomas, a laboratory research analyst in the Pulmonary, Asthma and Critical Care Division of Duke University Health Systems. Mr. Thomas accused Duke of knowingly submitting and causing the submission of false claims for research grants to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
According to Mr. Thomas’ complaint, Duke’s research grant applications contained falsified or fabricated data or statements. The false and erroneous data stemmed from Erin Potts-Kant, a clinical research coordinator who used to work within the same department.
Mr. Thomas filed the whistleblower lawsuit on behalf of the U.S. government after Ms. Potts-Kant was implicated in an unrelated embezzlement scheme at the university. He alleged that Duke and some of its professors used the phony data to fraudulently obtain federal research grants. In other cases, professors overlooked warning signs about Ms. Potts-Kant’s work, according to the suit. Then they tried to cover up the fraud once the bad data raised suspicions, he alleged.
Ms. Potts-Kant herself told Duke investigators that the data she falsified factored into multiple medical research studies and grant applications. In some cases, she said she manipulated data to achieve a certain outcome; in other cases, she admitted to making the data up.
That bad lab data was exceptionally damaging because it came from the lab regarded as the core facility that professors at Duke and other Research Triangle universities relied on for measurements.
Mr. Thomas’ brother, John Thomas, who represented him in the case, recognized the significance of his brother’s allegations, noting that they formed what he said were “simply put, one of the largest scientific fraud cases in history,” adding that the case’s “impact on the published scientific record, federal grant funding, and on individual researchers was unprecedented.”
Since the research fraud scandal came to light, Duke has retracted about a dozen scientific publications that relied on data from Ms. Potts-Kant’s research.
Mr. Thomas filed the lawsuit against Duke under the whistleblower provisions of the False Claims Act, which allows private parties to sue on behalf of the United States in cases of suspected fraud or other wrongdoing targeting federal agencies and programs.
The U.S investigated Mr. Thomas’ allegations and chose to intervene, actively prosecuting in the dispute. Federal prosecutors determined that the alleged fraud spanned more than a decade, starting in 2006 and ending in 2018.
“Duke knowingly submitted and caused to be submitted claims to the NIH and to the EPA that contained falsified or fabricated data or statements in thirty (30) grants, causing the NIH and EPA to pay out grants funds they otherwise would not have,” the U.S. Department of Justice said in its announcement of the settlement agreement.
Mr. Thomas will receive a whistleblower award of $33,750,000 from the settlement, the DOJ said.
“This is a difficult moment for Duke,” President Vincent Price wrote in an email to the Duke community, according to The (Duke) Chronicle. “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.”
Mr. Price noted that the University has taken several other steps in recent years to “promote an environment and culture of scientific integrity,” including establishing an Office for Scientific Integrity and appointing an associate vice provost and vice dean for scientific integrity.