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A whistleblower lawsuit filed against Duke University and two scientists that alleges fraud enabled them to secure $112 million in federal funding can proceed, a judge ruled last week.

The suit, brought under the False Claims Act, was originally filed in 2013. It could lead to the school losing triple the amount of the grant money, and could entitle the whistleblower to tens of millions of dollars.

The complaint alleges that Erin Potts-Kant, and her supervisor William Foster, used fraudulent work to successfully get funding.

The two scientists and Duke all filed motions to dismiss last month. But a federal judge ruled on April 25 that the lawsuit will proceed, according to federal court documents on file.

The whistleblower suit was unsealed by a U.S. district court last year. The lawsuit was first reported by the science watchdog website Retraction Watch.

The lawsuit was filed by former Duke employee Joseph Thomas, who had worked in the pulmonary division as a laboratory research analyst along with Potts-Kant and Foster.

Potts-Kant allegedly used a new tool called a flexiVent machine, and tailored the results of the experiments. Sometimes she deliberately did not expose mice to the chemical, medication, or other exposure called for in the experiment – or other times just altered the results.

“Potts-ant’s fraud was sometimes more direct and brazen,” the lawsuit claims. “She sometimes did not run the experiments at all, instead manufacturing data that would correspond to the hoped-for outcome of the experiment.” 

The papers then provided basis for the successful grants. The suit contends it was the deciding factor in 53 grants totaling approximately $112 million.

Potts-Kant was arrested in March 2013 on allegations she had embezzled more than $14,000 from the school to go on spending sprees at stores – and then even falsified receipts. Potts-Kant later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation, community service, and a fine.

The lawsuit also alleged that Duke and Foster had not appropriately overseen Potts-Kant’s work to prevent the fraud. Duke has since defended its stance, saying that it reported improprieties to authorities when it was made aware of the extent of the misconduct.

Several experts have told Retraction Watch that the lawsuit could lead to a wave of similar lawsuits at other schools.

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