Duke University will pay $112.5 million to settle a whistleblower’s lawsuit over a research technician who prosecutors say falsified data to get federal grants for years.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Greensboro in 2014 by a former Duke employee who said that Erin Potts-Kant, who worked in Duke’s Airway Physiology Laboratory, had lied about her findings to get dozens of federal grants. The lawsuit alleged that Duke knowingly submitted the researcher’s false claims to the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency in 30 grants. Using that data, the agencies gave the university millions of dollars in research grants they otherwise would not have, the lawsuit said.
Duke said Potts-Kant’s experiments involved measuring the lung function of lab mice, not humans, and were not connected to clinical research. After doing a three-year review of more than 50 potentially compromised research grants, Duke retracted publications that used the researcher’s results.
As part of the settlement, Joseph Thomas, the whistleblower, will receive $33,750,000.
“This settlement sends a strong message that fraud and dishonesty will not be tolerated in the research funding process,” the EPA’s Mary S. Walker said in a release from the U.S. Department of Justice. “We will continue to take appropriate legal measures to ensure a fiscally sound system that protects grant funds.”
Duke also made an announcement about the settlement. In it, Duke president Vincent E. Price said, “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 these 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.”
In addition to the allegations that she falsified data, Potts-Kant was charged in 2013 with embezzling money from Duke. She pleaded guilty to two counts of forgery and paid restitution to the university.
In response to the misconduct, Duke said, it has begun to put in place additional protections to prevent similar problems. It said the changes include:
▪ Appointing a new advisory panel on research integrity and excellence that will advise university leadership on ways to improve.
▪ A new leadership structure to provide clear and consistent policy guidance, oversight and accountability for all research at Duke.
▪ A new executive oversight committee.
“Taxpayers expect and deserve that federal grant dollars will be used efficiently and honestly,” Matthew G.T. Martin, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina said in the government’s release. “May this serve as a lesson that the use of false or fabricated data in grant applications or reports is completely unacceptable.”