Researcher’s travel expenses cited in $2.93 million settlement
Research grants should not be used to pay for food and hotel expenses for a researcher, his family, and his friends. That’s the key message from a False Claims Act lawsuit that resulted in Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, agreeing to pay the United States $2.93 million to settle claims of cancer research grant fraud.
The alleged fraud involved a former researcher and physician at the university’s Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center in Chicago. Northwestern agreed to the settlement in a federal False Claims Act lawsuit that was unsealed recently after the government investigated the claims made by a former employee and whistleblower who will receive a portion of the settlement.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) claims that Northwestern allowed one of its researchers, Charles L. Bennett, to submit false claims under research grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The settlement covers claims that Bennett submitted for reimbursement from the federal grants for professional and consulting services, subcontracts, food, hotels, travel, and other expenses that benefited Bennett, his friends, and family from Jan. 1, 2003, through Aug. 31, 2010, according to the DOJ.
The allegations were made in a civil lawsuit filed under seal in 2009 by Melissa Theis, a former employee of the Lurie Cancer Center, who will receive $498,100 in settlement proceeds. Her allegations were investigated by the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the NIH, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. At the same time the settlement was announced, the whistleblower lawsuit that initiated the case was unsealed: United States, et al., ex rel. Melissa Theis v. Northwestern University, Dr. Charles L. Bennett, et al., No. 09 C 1943 (N.D. Ill.).
Northwestern fully cooperated during the investigation but did not admit liability as part of the settlement, Gary S. Shapiro, JD, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, said in announcing the settlement.
"Allowing researchers to use federal grant money to pay for personal travel, hotels, and meals, and to hire unqualified friends and relatives as consultants,’ violates the public trust and federal law," Shapiro said. "This settlement, combined with the willingness of insiders to report fraud, should help deter such misconduct, but when it doesn’t, federal grant recipients who allow the system to be manipulated should know that we will aggressively pursue all available legal remedies."
Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro, PhD, and other leaders at the school issued a statement saying that though the university does not admit any guilt, "Northwestern was nonetheless disappointed to see the allegations in the complaint because they are at odds with the University’s commitment to a culture of compliance in the administration of federal research grants. Northwestern takes its grant administration responsibilities seriously, and fully cooperated with the government’s investigation of these allegations in an effort to demonstrate their inconsistency with its institutional values."
Although Northwestern expressly denied wrongdoing by any current faculty members as part of the settlement agreement, the university elected to settle the case rather than engage in protracted litigation that would divert time and resources from its primary missions of education and research, Schapiro said.