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Whistleblower gets $33 million in research fraud settlement

A lab research analyst who was ostracized and vilified after he blew the whistle on research fraud at Duke University Health Systems has been awarded $33.75 million as part of the university’s $112.5 million settlement with the government.

Joseph Thomas spent more than a year unemployed after he told about fraudulent research on the lung functioning of mice that was awarded dozens of grants starting in 2006 from the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency.

For its part, Duke says it discovered the misconduct after the employee was fired for embezzling money. Seven years of data was deemed fraudulent or unreliable.

Government declined to investigate

Thomas filed the suit against the university after the government declined to investigate the matter after he told them about it. Because he filed the suit on the government’s behalf, he stood to gain 30 percent of the settlement.

The clinical research coordinator named in Thomas’ suit, Erin Potts-Kant, allegedly fraudulently submitted incorrect and sometimes fabricated data to keep the funding alive. The suit also accused her supervisors of ignoring signs of fraud.

Research cited 417 times

In addition to the financial penalty, the allegedly fraudulent research was used to help Potts-Kant co-author and publish 38 scholarly articles with her co-workers. These articles were in turn cited 417 times by the time the suit was filed in 2013. A website has found 17 retractions of papers related to Potts-Kant’s work.

Duke officials said Potts-Kant later pleaded guilty to forgery and paid restitution. The university said it has taken several steps to upgrade research integrity and responsibility.

The case, which was originally filed in 2013, includes nearly 300 motions, orders and court filings. It was settled in November but the Department of Justice was slow to approve the settlement. The final hearing was in the District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina in Greensboro.

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