Research Grant Fraud
Twenty six agencies in the federal government such as the National Institutes of Health (“NIH”), the Department of Defense (“DOD”), the Department of Energy (“DOE”), NASA, and the National Science Foundation (“NSF”) spend billions of dollars per year funding various research projects “to carry out a public purpose.” The areas of research include new weapons technologies, new forms of alternative energy, and cutting edge developments in the space program. These projects are most often conducted by private companies, universities, and hospitals. The NIH is the leading source of federal money for medical research.
Due to the enormous spending on research grants, they are a prime target for fraud. Even some of the most prestigious universities and hospitals have been accused of research grant fraud, including Harvard University, Cornell University, Duke University, and Northwestern University. All types of research grants are prone to fraud including: submitting a false grant application, using grant money for other research projects or personal expenses, falsifying results, or simply overcharging for time. Any improper use of federal research grants may cause the researchers to be liable under the FCA.
In 2009, Will Medical College of Cornell University agreed to pay $2.6 million to settle allegations of research fraud. The university allegedly defrauded NIH by falsely obtaining research grants that date all the way back to 1991. The lawsuit was based on accusations that Dr. Lorraine Gudas failed to fully disclose the grants and other financial support she received in her grant applications and that she also submitted the same projects for funding even though they had already received funding under other NIH grants. The total amount of fraudulently awarded grants to Cornell is estimated at $14 million.
In 2013, Northwestern University agreed to pay the government $2.93 million to settle claims that it improperly used a cancer research grant at its Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Center for Cancer in Chicago. Allegedly, Northwestern allowed one of its researchers, Dr. Charles L. Bennett, to submit false claims under various research grants from NIH. Some of the claims included reimbursement for professional and consulting services, subcontracts, food, hotels, travel, and other expenses that benefited Dr. Bennett, his friends, and his family from 2003 to 2010. The relator in this case received $498,100.
In 2014, federal prosecutors filed charges directly against a scientist at Iowa State University after he admitted to falsifying data that allowed the school to obtain millions of dollars in grant money and hopes of a breakthrough in AIDS vaccine research. Dr. Dong-Pyou, who also managed the laboratory, revealed that he spiked samples of rabbit blood with human antibodies to make an experimental HIV drug appear promising. After the NIH invented years of work and millions of dollars in grants, another lab uncovered the fraud. Charges are rarely filed against scientists in cases of research misconduct. As for the FCA violation, Iowa State University agreed to repay the $500,000 for the cost of Dr. Han’s salary. In addition, the NIH has rescinded $1.38 million from an Iowa State University research team.