Columbia Mesothelioma Expert Removed, Embroiled in Scandal

Roxanne Nelson

January 30, 2015

The director of a cancer research center at Columbia University, Robert Taub, MD, PhD, has been removed from his position in the wake of a scandal.

Dr Taub has served as the head of Presbyterian Columbia's Mesothelioma Research Center in New York City since 2002.

"The research and patient care activities of the mesothelioma center are being absorbed into the division of hematology and oncology. Dr Taub no longer serves as its director," said a spokesperson for Columbia Medical Center, according to a report in Daily News.

Dr Taub is also listed as Vivian and Seymour Milstein Family Professor of Clinical Medicine at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons and attending oncologist at Columbia University Medical Center. Columbia officials report that he remains on the payroll.

According to various media reports, Dr Taub became embroiled in a scandal that involved referring patients to a personal injury law firm that had connections to New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Silver reportedly received more than $3 million in bogus "referral fees" stemming from this deal, even though he is not legally connected to any of the cases.

Details of the transactions emerged in a criminal complaint filed against Silver. According to the complaint, Dr Taub referred his cancer patients to the New York law firm of Weitz & Luxenberg, which lists Silver as "of counsel." The firm specializes in asbestos exposure litigation, and Dr Taub made the referrals in exchange for public funds being directed to his research at the Mesothelioma Research Center.

Weitz & Luxenberg paid Silver $3.2 million over several years for bringing patients to the firm. In exchange, Silver steered $500,000 in state money to Dr Taub's mesothelioma research, as well as providing favors to his family, according to prosecutors, a report in the New York Times explains.

Dr Taub opened one of the nation's few mesothelioma research clinics in 2002 and, according to the New York Times, became "something of a hero" in the world of mesothelioma, a disease that is invariably fatal.

The disease is quite rare — diagnosed in about 3000 people a year — so funding can be difficult to come by. However, Dr Taub attracted patients from across the country and around the world.

He referred his first patient to Weitz & Luxenberg a year after the center at Columbia opened. In 2005, the records indicate that Silver gave a state grant of $250,000 to Dr Taub for asbestos research. A year later, Dr Taub received another grant for the same amount. In 2008, $25,000 in state funding was sent to a nonprofit organization that had one of Dr Taub's relatives as a member of its board, according to the complaint.

Court documents state that Dr Taub began to receive financial support in 2010 related to another legal practice where he also referred patients. A commitment for $3.15 million for mesothelioma research was made from the foundation of the Simmons Law Firm, which focuses on asbestos litigation.

Dr Taub served as an expert witness for Weitz & Luxenberg as recently as 2013.

The criminal complaints levied against Silver charge him with five counts of corruption and allege that he used his power and influence to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks. If convicted, he faces a maximum of 20 years in prison for each count.

Dr Taub is reported to be cooperating with the FBI and will not be prosecuted in exchange for his testimony against Silver.

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