Meet the Whistleblower Who Just Cost Duke $112.5 Million

Ivan Oransky

March 26, 2019

Joseph Thomas, MS, was frustrated.

It was the spring of 2013, and the department at Duke University where he had been working as a lab tech for 5 years was abuzz. "There was a flurry of activity of frantic researchers checking data and comparing files, and tensions were extremely high," Thomas, who turns 35 tomorrow, told Medscape Medical News.

Joseph Thomas

That flurry of activity was from researchers scrutinizing results produced by Erin Potts-Kant, another lab tech who tested lung function following exposure to pollution, and other subjects. Potts-Kant had been charged with embezzling more than $25,000 from Duke, some by faking receipts for purchases from Target and elsewhere. That prompted lab directors to look carefully at work she had performed for them, since the results had made it into some 50 studies.

What they found, once they looked more closely at the work from William Foster's lab, where Potts-Kants worked, was not good. "While the problems with the data varied, much of the data from the Foster lab did not match the original raw data, and sometimes no raw data appeared to exist at all," Thomas said.

According to court records, colleagues had questions about whether Potts-Kant had even purchased methacoline, a drug she said she used in experiments. Meanwhile, Duke was trying to control the message. A colleague told Thomas at the time that Duke's research integrity office did not want the case to "snowball," and that it wanted to write any retraction notices.

The work is now subject to 17 retractions, and Foster has left Duke. But the ripples were even more far-reaching. "The lab in question had played an integral role in dozens of research projects spanning years, so the revelation that the underlying data was not reliable placed a lot of grants, manuscripts, and careers in jeopardy," said Thomas.

While researchers scrambled to figure out what was going on, one Duke scientist was planning to travel to Bethesda, Maryland, to defend the work in order to get a grant renewed, according to court documents. Yet one researcher sent Thomas a text message saying, "I'm also hearing things like, 'The data can't leave Duke.' " And a colleague told Thomas that "in retrospect, the division should have known something was wrong with Potts-Kant's method, particularly because of how quickly Duke could publish papers."

Duke's recent history when it came to investigating allegations of misconduct was not pristine. Unknown to Thomas at the time, Duke had effectively silenced a medical student who had come forward about a case that had involved a former cancer researcher at the university named Anil Potti, MD, which led to a finding of misconduct and settlements in at least a dozen malpractice lawsuits.

Thomas knew that the Foster data were somehow involved in grants worth tens of millions of dollars, and he "became frustrated with the pace and the attitude of the internal investigation, as well as the apparent far-reaching impact." He thought about talking to the media about what he'd seen.

Then he spoke to his brother, John, a Marine reservist and lawyer in Roanoke, Virginia, with whom he'd grown up on a sheep farm in western Pennsylvania along with their sister, Ellen. John Thomas's then-firm, Gentry Locke, had taken an interest in False Claims Act cases, which allow whistleblowers to collect substantial sums in settlements related to government grants and contracts. At the time, a handful of cases had been successful for relators, the legal term for such whistleblowers.

Joseph Thomas "realized that if I pursued a legal route, it could potentially give more context to what had happened — but more importantly it be a mechanism for addressing the broader underlying issues with scientific misconduct and help enact a positive change."

Joseph Thomas filed suit against Duke, Potts-Kant, Foster, and others in May 2013, alleging that Duke knew about the faked data when its researchers — and others — submitted grants to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Environmental Protection Agency worth more than $200 million.

Then he waited.

An Uncertain Future in Science

False Claim Act cases, also known as qui tam suits, must be filed under seal and are filed on behalf of the US government, which does not always join in the litigation. In 2016, however, a judge ruled that the filings in Thomas v. Duke could be made public.

Still, the case dragged on, as such cases often do. In court documents filed in 2017, Potts-Kant "admitted to faking data that allegedly were used to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants," Retraction Watch reported at the time. Duke, whose motion to dismiss the case failed, also admitted it knew about the fakery, but it remained unclear whether that was discovered before or after the grant applications in question were submitted.

In March 2018, the NIH began subjecting Duke's grants to stricter oversight because, it said, of how the university had mishandled "several misconduct cases." And in November, court documents suggested that the case was close to being settled.

In the meantime, according to notes Thomas took in August 2014 that made their way into court records, a colleague "said that everyone just has to look out for themselves." Duke, the colleague said, might fire everyone involved "if this gets worse, which is why everyone is trying to leave, they think they are going to be fired."

The same month, according to Thomas's notes entered into court records, there was what was described as an "extremely stressful" Department of Medicine meeting. Researchers were told that "the government wants answers now" and that "everything is invalid because the scripts were bad."

Thomas, who left Duke in September 2014 without a job because he felt that he could no longer continue without endangering the United States' ongoing investigation, worried about his future in science. "It was a long and difficult process personally," he said. "I was unemployed for a year, and my future in science was questionable. Without the support of my family and my attorneys, I would not have been able to get to where I am today."

He recently left his job as a lab tech at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he had been since September 2015. But he is also about to be quite wealthy: Duke settled the case with the government on Monday for $112.5 million, 30% of which, or $33.8 million, goes to Thomas. His attorneys say it is the largest False Claims Act settlement with a university in history.

What now for Thomas? He celebrated last night by...walking his dogs and then watching a movie on Netflix with his wife.

"I will always be interested in science, and after going through what I did, I would like to stay involved in research integrity," he told Medscape Medical News. "I am interested in serving as an advocate for whistleblowers, as well as helping universities detect and address issues with scientific research. Playing even a small role in restoring confidence in the system for scientists and the general public would be a great honor."

The waiting, and the sacrifice, were worthwhile, he said: "I knew if this could happen at a prestigious institution like Duke, this could be happening anywhere."

Ivan Oransky, MD, is Medscape vice president for editorial and cofounder of Retraction Watch.

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This story was updated on March 26 to correct the branch of the armed services in which John Thomas serves (Marines, not Navy). In addition, Joseph Thomas left UNC-Chapel Hill a few weeks before this story was posted.

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