A Civil War-Era Whistleblower Law May be Used to Punish Scientific Fraud at Duke

The prestigious Duke University is garnering some unwanted attention. The school known for solid academics and a stellar basketball team is now at the heart of a lawsuit over scientific fraud. According to Stat News, the lawsuit is trying to use a 19th-century whistleblower law to hold the university accountable for grant money obtained through scientific fraud.

False Claims Act (FCA)

Stat News explains that The False Claims Act or, “Lincoln Law,” is a federal statute from the post Civil War Era. Back then, the Union wanted to stop suppliers from fraudulent use of government funds. The law was written to encourage whistleblowers by offering a 30% payout for the reporting of unsavory use of taxpayer money. So, a multimillion-dollar scheme could mean a hefty payday for a whistleblower.

This case centers around allegations that researchers at Duke used faked data to win tens of millions of dollars in federal funding. Stat News reports Erin Potts-Kant, the person at the heart of the scientific fraud case, has admitted wrongdoing. Duke has also admitted they knew she was faking her data. But how much did the University know and when? Those questions have answers that are tough to prove in court.

The lawsuit is being brought by Joseph Thomas, a former colleague of Potts-Kant, and he is asking for 30% of the settlement that Duke may have to pay for the funding that was obtained with the fake data. He and his attorneys say, as the whistleblower in this case, he is entitled. The article says that settlement could be up to three times the $200 million in grants that may have used the fake data.

The use of the FCA for this purpose is a recent turn of events but was proven a useful tool in other scientific fraud cases. The article cites a Columbia University case and one involving Weill Cornell Medical College. They also note that university basically “use a tax on the grants that their faculty and research staff receive.” That means the government may have an interest under FCA.

Against the Odds

The article notes that despite some recent success, the odds are against Thomas receiving a big payday. Stat News points out that scientific fraud cases are usually a low priority for the Department of Justice. The cases take a long time, often end up failing, and ultimate success depends on the government taking an interest in the case. This Duke lawsuit was filed in 2015 and the government has still not—and may not—join. Plus, according to an expert cited in the article, Thomas and his team must prove Duke knew about the fake data when the grants were submitted.

Stat News does say one possible impact of FCA being used in this way could be the universities themselves cleaning house and doing a better job of self-policing scientific fraud. After all, if millions are on the line, recognizing fraud before it happens may become a priority.

Jeffrey A. Newman represents whistleblowers.