Researcher Faces Federal Criminal and Administrative Penalties for False Statements

A university researcher’s guilty plea in a prosecution for alleged false statements demonstrates how federal criminal cases can sometimes take place alongside other legal proceedings arising from the same act or incident. In addition to the indictment, which charged four counts of false statements under 18 U.S.C. ยง 1001, the researcher entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regarding administrative penalties. United States v. Han, No. 4:14-cr-00078, indictment (S.D. Iowa, Jun. 17, 2014); 78 Fed. Reg. 77467 (Dec. 23, 2013).

The defendant was the laboratory manager for a professor at Iowa State University (ISU), a position he had held since 2009. He was laboratory manager for the same professor at Case Western Reserve University from 2001 to 2009. Prior to that, both he and the professor worked for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an agency under HHS that provides grants for medical research. They were both involved in research aimed at developing a vaccine for HIV and AIDS, and the professor received several NIH grants for that purpose. NIH grants are typically funded annually for a period of five years. The NIH requires annual progress reports from grantees. The indictment noted that the defendant’s university salary was partly “dependent on the receipt of grant monies.” Han, indictment at 3.

Part of the defendant’s job, according to the government’s indictment, involved injecting HIV-infected rabbits with a vaccine. He would then draw blood and test it for the presence of antibodies, which would suggest that the vaccine was working by “neutralizing” the virus. Id. With regard to one experimental vaccine, gp41, the government claimed that the defendant falsified research data by recording the presence of antibodies in blood samples where few or no antibodies were present and then reporting the falsified data to the professor. Prosecutors claimed that the defendant then added HIV antibodies taken from human blood samples to the rabbit blood samples, so follow-up tests would match his falsified results. The apparent success of gp41, based on the experimental results, led to additional research grants from the NIH.

ISU conducted an investigation of the defendant’s work, which reportedly resulted in a “detailed admission” by the defendant. 78 Fed. Reg. at 77467. The HHS Office of Research Integrity (ORI) opened an administrative proceeding, and the defendant and ORI entered into a “Voluntary Exclusion Agreement” in December 2013. The defendant agreed to exclude himself from a wide range of government-sponsored research activity for a three-year period.

A grand jury indicted the defendant on four counts of false statements in June 2014. The four counts covered alleged false statements made in a December 2009 NIH grant application and progress reports submitted to the NIH in March 2011, March 2012, and July 2012. The defendant agreed to plead guilty to the first two counts, which involved the grant application and the first progress report, in early 2015. The court dismissed the remaining counts. On July 1, 2015, the court sentenced the defendant to two concurrent 57-month prison terms, followed by three years of supervised release on each count. It also ordered him to pay more than $7.2 million in restitution to the NIH. The defendant is appealing the sentence.

These blog posts are meant to be illustrative only. Unless expressly stated to the contrary herein, these matters are not the result of any legal work of Michael J. Brown, but are used to communicate a particular point of view. Michael J. Brown does not claim credit for any legal work done by any lawyer or law firm either generally or specifically, with respect to the matters contained in this blog.

Michael J. Brown, a board-certified criminal defense attorney, represents the rights of people in west Texas charged with alleged white-collar and other offenses at the state and federal levels. Contact us online or at (432) 687-5157 today to schedule a confidential consultation with a knowledgeable and experienced legal advocate.

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