The lawsuit, filed by Joseph Thomas on behalf of the U.S. government, alleges former Duke researchers Erin Potts-Kant and William Foster falsified data relating to respiratory function experiments beginning in 2006. The suit also names Duke University and Duke University Health System Inc., as defendants.
“The Defendants’ actions since March 2013 seeking to conceal their fraud have caused these negative impacts to ripple and worsen, as this fraudulent research continues to be cited and, relying upon this fraudulent research, other scientists have embarked down fruitless avenues of study,” the lawsuit said.
Potts-Kant, who allegedly completed the false research under the supervision of Foster, was convicted of embezzling from the university in 2013. The suit claims even after her conviction caused a review of her findings, the university did not report the extent of the fraud to the government.
Mike Schoenfeld, spokesperson for Duke University, said in a statement Duke is ready to comply with the investigation.
“Duke is committed to maintaining the highest standards of integrity in research,” he said.
Schoenfeld said the university handled the situation appropriately.
“Even though the full scope of Ms. Potts-Kant’s actions were not known at the time, Duke notified several government agencies in June 2013 about the matter and immediately launched a formal scientific misconduct investigation, as required by federal law,” he said.
The case was sealed until recently, and Shelley Slade, an attorney at Vogel, Slade & Goldstein, LLP, said the Department of Justice used this time to decide whether to become involved with the case, based on the resources and evidence available.
“If they decline to intervene, the whistleblower can continue the case on their own with their attorney on behalf of the taxpayers,” Slade said. “That’s what’s happening in the Duke case.”
Joel Androphy, a partner at Berg & Androphy in Houston, said the whistleblower could receive a reward for bringing the suit forward, but it’s a necessary incentive.
“Otherwise nobody’s going to report fraud at Duke because it’s basically a career-ending move,” he said.
Androphy said if Duke loses the case they will have to pay back triple the amount of money they received and penalties for each falsified grant. But the most significant consequence might not be the money, he said.
“The federal government could decide that they’re no longer going to provide federal funding for any Duke research,” he said.
Negative publicity related to cases of this nature can do permanent damage to an institution, Androphy said.
“At this point these are just accusations,” he said. “They haven’t been proven yet, but they’re significant accusations. People are always going to remember this.”