Fraud against the U.S. government is more than an academic exercise. That’s what The Scripts Research Institute (TSRI) discovered when a whistleblower alerted the U.S. Department of Justice that researchers were bilking the National Institutes of Health. TSRI has agreed to pay $10 million to settle allegations it billed NIH for activities unrelated to grants it had received from NIH. Professor Thomas Burris, a former TSRI employee, has been awarded $1.75 million for blowing the whistle on the illegal activity.
The public profile of NIH has been more prominent lately, due to its role in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic. But when it’s not responding to global health crises, NIH, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is the primary federal government agency responsible for biomedical and public health research.
NIH uses about 10 percent of its $10 billion budget on research within its own walls, and dispenses about 80 percent in the form of grants (estimated at $50,000 per annum) to more than 325,000 researchers at more than 3,000 institutions.
Given all the good NIH grants have done, from cancer therapies to vaccines and myriad other advances, we’d like to think that all NIH funds are well spent. But, apparently, even in the hallowed halls of academia, fraud is a significant problem. In its investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice determined that TSRI had “improperly charged NIH-funded research grants for time spent by researchers on non-grant related activities such as developing, preparing, and writing new grant applications, teaching, and engaging in other administrative activities.”
In other words, TSRI took the money under the pretense of doing certain specific research and applied the funds to work that should have come out of its general operating budget.
Since NIH is a federal government entity, fraud against it triggered the False Claims Act, a federal law that allows private citizens to sue on behalf of the government. A whistleblower who has unique, nonpublic information about fraud can file a qui tam lawsuit and claim a substantial reward. Depending on the whistleblower’s contribution to the case, he or she can collect anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of the government’s recovery.
The whistleblower in this case, Prof. Burris, worked at TSRI’s Jupiter, Florida campus from September 2008 through December 2013 in the field of molecular therapeutics. According to The Times of San Diego, his research focused on treating conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Burris described a high-pressure environment where staffers were forced to secure 100 percent of their salary via outside grants. Prof. Burris held eight federal research grant projects totaling more than $10 million, but also prepared and submitted at least 18 grant applications that were never awarded. Prof. Burris told the Department of Justice that during his tenure, he and other researchers (including those at TSRI’s La Jolla, CA campus) spent between 20 and 50 percent of his working time on grant proposal activity. This time resulted in an overcharge to the NIH for his work on the grant research.
In misusing NIH funds, TSRI not only stole from the government, but they also robbed the taxpayers who have a right to expect genuine medical research that will benefit humanity in the future. As Maureen R. Dixon, Special Agent in Charge, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General, explained, “Taxpayers funds for medical research are finite and the need for scientific advances is great; therefore, it’s critical that these resources are used as intended.” Special Agent Dixon promised continued vigilance to protect those resources.
If you have knowledge of fraud against the government, you should speak to a knowledgeable whistleblower attorney. At Halperin Bikel, PLLC, we have recovered more than $10 billion in state and federal whistleblower cases. We can provide the advice and advocacy you need to present a compelling case that can lead to a substantial reward.