A whistleblower at Duke University became a millionaire this week after exposing fraud at his university through a legal mechanism that lets people who recover money for taxpayers share in the profits.
Duke will pay the federal government $112.5 million in a settlement that “resolves allegations that between 2006 and 2018, Duke knowingly submitted and caused to be submitted claims to the [National Institutes of Health] and to the [Environmental Protection Agency] 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 Department of Justice said Monday.
“The United States contends that the results of certain research related to mice conducted by a Duke research technician in its Airway Physiology Laboratory, as well as statements based on those research results, were falsified and/or fabricated,” it continued.
The lawsuit shows that the researcher who falsified data is Erin N. Potts-Kant.
Duke’s President Vincent Price and Provost Sally Kornbluth said in a message to students: “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.” (RELATED: Universities Allegedly Broke Law To Hide Receipt Of Chinese Propaganda Money)
Joseph M. Thomas, a former colleague of Potts-Kant, filed a False Claims Act suit against Duke, Potts-Kant and her supervisor. The lawsuit was filed under seal in federal court in 2014.
Duke said in a statement that at the time the lawsuit was filed, it had fired Potts-Kant for embezzling money from the university but did not yet understand “the extent of her research misconduct.”
Since then, Duke did its own review of the research. “Following a detailed, three-year review of more than 50 potentially compromised research grants, Duke concluded that the technician had falsified or fabricated data that had been included in grant and payment requests submitted to the NIH and other agencies over the period of her employment. Duke also retracted scientific publications that relied on the data,” Duke said. (RELATED: Universities Took $600M From Muslim Nations While Also Receiving US Grants To Shape How US Teaches About Middle East)
Thomas was awarded $33,750,000 for his role in bringing the fraud to light.
Known as a “qui tam” suit, the vehicle Thomas pursued allows a private citizen to pursue another party for defrauding the government. If the complainant wins, he shares a portion of the money that is recovered for taxpayers. The type of motion incentivizes citizens to safeguard taxpayer money as they would their own.
Department of Justice lawyers sometimes intervene and take over the case on behalf of the complainant, but that is not required.
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