On March 25, 2019, the Department of Justice announced a large settlement with Duke University for False Claims Act (“FCA”) allegations related to fraud in connection with federal grants. Duke will pay the government $112.5 million to resolve allegations that it violated the FCA through the submission of various applications and progress reports based on falsified research. Grants from the National Institutes of Health (“NIH”) and to the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) had been awarded based on the fraudulent applications and reports.
These allegations were originally brought in a lawsuit filed by Relator Joseph Thomas, who was a Duke employee at the time he filed the lawsuit under the qui tam, or whistleblower, provisions of the False Claims Act. United States ex rel. Thomas v. Duke University, et al., Case No. 1:17-cv-276 (M.D.N.C.). The United States declined to intervene in this suit, and Relator continued to prosecute the action on the government’s behalf. The whistleblower, now a former Duke employee, will receive $33,750,000 from the settlement. That is the maximum 30% of the settlement that is permitted to be awarded to a whistleblower under the FCA.
About the Case
At the time of the alleged fraudulent events, Relator was a Laboratory Research Analyst in the Pulmonary, Asthma and Critical Care Division of Duke University Health Systems. The allegations stemmed from fraudulent misrepresentations of clinical research made by a Clinical Research Coordinator in the Airway Physiology Laboratory of the Pulmonary Division. The research related to the effects of inhaling diesel exhaust by mice. The results of this research were allegedly falsified and/or fabricated but had been used in various grant applications and reports. Several published research papers by this team were later retracted.
Relator alleged that Duke had warning signs that some of the research was fraudulent but did not take any action until discovering that the Research Coordinator had siphoned off money for spending on clothes and other items. Duke contended that it was not aware of the fraudulent research until it began its investigation of the misappropriation of funds.
Seemingly in connection with the lawsuit and the extensive publicity regarding the alleged fraud, Duke announced that it was taking various steps to promote ethics in its research endeavors, including the creation of an office for scientific integrity and requiring training in research integrity for all medical school faculty. Duke will also create an advisory panel on research integrity and excellence, to be led by faculty from other academic research institutions.
If you see fraudulent activity of this type at a university or other research facility, consider contacting an experienced whistleblower attorney to see if there are claims that should be evaluated. You can help protect taxpayer funds, encourage more ethical research practices – and perhaps be awarded a substantial sum of money for your efforts.
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