The majority of False Claims Act (FCA) cases involve health care or military contracts; however, the FCA is both able and beginning to be used by a more diverse range of industries, which now includes academic research. Allegedly, Duke University has submitted fraudulent data in applications for more than 60 grants, worth more than $200 million. The issue began with a researcher working in the lab of a prominent pulmonary scientist at Duke. When the researcher, Erin Potts-Kant, was arrested for embezzlement, Duke took a closer look at the researcher’s work. Fifteen of the researcher’s papers had to be retracted for unreliable data.
The FCA case against Duke was filed by biologist Joseph Thomas. According to Thomas, Duke was aware of the misconduct before the investigation and failed to disclose the scope of what it knew to federal funding agencies. Additionally, Thomas alleges that Duke received 64 grants either based on or arising from the research of Potts-Kant. These grants totaled more than $200 million. Because public universities are government entities, they may have some protection against FCA lawsuits; however, private universities do not.
Private universities, like Duke, make up the top 25 recipients of federal funding for academic science. The FCA provides treble damages, meaning Duke could be forced to return three times the amount of funding it received from the 64 grants, totaling more than $600 million. Therefore, depending on how this case against Duke resolves, there could be a flux of FCA cases concerning academic research in the near future. The complaint was filed by Joseph Thomas under the qui tam provision of the FCA.
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