Duke University will pay $112 million to settle a whistleblower lawsuit after federal prosecutors said a research technician’s fake data landed millions of dollars in federal grants, the school and the government said Monday.
The private university in Durham submitted claims for dozens of research grants that contained falsified or fabricated information that unjustly drained taxpayer money from the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies, the U.S. Justice Department said. The school said it is repaying grant money and related penalties.
“Taxpayers expect and deserve that federal grant dollars will be used efficiently and honestly,” local U.S. Attorney Matthew G.T. Martin said in a statement. “May this serve as a lesson that the use of false or fabricated data in grant applications or reports is completely unacceptable.”
The lawsuit was first filed in 2015 by whistleblower and former Duke employee Joseph Thomas. The Justice Department took it over afterward. The suit claims the faked research was conducted by former research technician Erin Potts-Kant, who was supervised by pulmonary medicine researcher William Michael Foster. Foster’s lab experimented with mice, seeking to determine the effects of inhaling diesel exhaust, among other tests. Several research papers by Foster’s team were later retracted.
“We expect Duke researchers to adhere always to the highest standards of integrity, and virtually all of them do that with great dedication,” university President Vincent Price said in a statement. “When individuals fail to uphold those 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.”
The settlement was announced on the same day that U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles had scheduled a hearing on why the deal supposedly struck in November hadn’t been finalized by the Justice Department.
The government alleged that between 2006 and 2018 Duke knowingly submitted faked data to federal agencies in 30 grants. The university had warning signs that some of the research was fraudulent but didn’t act until discovering in 2013 that Potts-Kant had siphoned off money for spending on clothes and other items, the lawsuit said.
Duke University said the technician pleaded guilty to two counts of forgery in state court and paid the school restitution. Foster retired in 2015, university spokesman Michael Schoenfeld said.
Thomas, the whistleblower, will get $33.75 million from the settlement, the government said.
Duke is still dealing with a different research scandal dating back more than a decade. Duke medical professor Dr. Anil Potti engaged in misconduct while researching treatments in human cancer patients, U.S. Health and Human Services Department investigators said in 2015. Potti’s studies were published in top medical journals including the New England Journal of Medicine and Lancet Oncology between 2006 and 2009.
In a settlement reached with the federal health agency, Potti did not acknowledge liability but agreed to have all his research supervised until 2020. Potti left Duke in 2010. Duke settled lawsuits brought by patients and estates of patients who participated in those medical trials.
As a result of both cases, the National Institutes of Health last year required Duke University researchers to increase their reporting of how federal grant money was being spent.