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After almost seven years, new twists in Wayne State whistleblower case

May 19, 2017

In 2010, Christian Kreipke was a rising star in the world of neuroscience research. He was a tenure-track professor at Wayne State University’s School of Medicine, and a health scientist with the Veterans Administration (VA).

His research focused on traumatic brain injuries. That work caught the attention of scientific journals, and Kreipke was getting millions of dollars in research grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

But in 2012, Wayne State fired Kreipke. The VA followed 2013. What happened?


The backstory: Allegations of fraud

When I met Christian Kreipke at his grandmother’s small, tidy house on Detroit’s far west side, it was mid-afternoon. He’d just finished a night shift at the nearby Ford Rouge plant.

“After two years of assembling tires, now I’m in charge of getting our parts in and heat-treated,” he explained.

Seven years ago, things were different.

Christian Kreipke in 2017.
Credit Michgian Radio / Sarah Cwiek

At just 33 years old, Kreipke was an assistant professor at Wayne State University’s medical school. He had a joint appointment as a health scientist at the John D. Dingell VA Medical Center in Detroit.

His research focus was a hot topic: traumatic brain injuries. And Kreipke thought he was on the verge of a breakthrough in how we think about and treat TBI.

Instead of looking at some crucial brain cells — neurons — in isolation, he homed in on what keeps those cells going.

“For the neuron to survive, it has to have adequate nutrients. The only way it gets that is through blood flow,” Kreipke said. “So instead of saying ‘neuron broken, let’s try to fix it,’ I said, ‘Well, let’s stop it from being broken in the first place.’”

With colleagues at Wayne State and other schools, Kreipke’s research drew attention from the scientific community and press. He traveled the world sharing his work at conferences.

And he got lots of federal research grants — about $3 million in 2009-10.

Everything was rolling along until June 2010, when Wayne State asked Kreipke to sign off on an effort report. That’s a standard thing at universities; basically, a piece of paper that says how you divide up your time among job duties, and how each of those duties is funded.

In Kreipke’s case, administrators with the university’s Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) filled it out. And he thought it was wrong.

“It was grotesquely wrong,” Kreipke said. “It was saying that I was doing a lot more effort on grants than possible.”

Here’s why that matters. Research grants from NIH (more than $20 billion worth every year) don’t go directly to scientists. They go to their research institutions, mostly universities.

And they don’t just get the money budgeted for research projects. Universities get an added percentage (the amount varies by institution) for “indirect costs” — basically, the overhead costs of administering the grant. And while those funds are somewhat restricted, universities have a lot of leeway in how they spend them.

The effort report said that Kreipke spent 80% of his time on grant-funded research; he maintains the true number was 45%. But by claiming almost twice as much, Wayne State would get to collect that much more money for both direct and indirect costs.

Kreipke refused to sign off on that report. And he started asking fellow faculty members about their experiences with effort reporting, and the university’s grant-handling policies.

In the words of a document written up by Kreipke’s faculty union representative, he became convinced that some Wayne State administrators were “engaged in scams to get more money from the state and the federal government, and to skim money from grants for [their] own uses.”

Then, at the end of 2010, Kreipke was appointed to a faculty committee that would look into, among other things, Wayne State’s granting policies.

“I announced at the end of January 2011, that I was going to be taking a hard look at the granting policies,” Kreipke said. “And there were numerous faculty at that meeting that agreed that there were a lot of problems.

“It was two weeks later that I was accused of scientific misconduct.”

Part of a larger pattern?

To this day, Kreipke insists he wasn’t out to get anybody with his grant fraud allegations. Instead, he said he just wanted to “contain” the problem, and correct it. And he “absolutely did not” think it would end with him losing his job.

But Anca Vlasopolos felt differently. She’s the former vice president of the American Association of University Professionals (AAUP) at Wayne State, and was a grievance coordinator throughout Kreipke’s case.

“I had big misgivings when we appointed him to that committee because he was non-tenured,” Vlasopolos said.  “And it’s a very vulnerable position for someone to be in.

“But his career was such that he was going to be tenured early, and he was one of the largest, if not the largest grant-getter in the School of Medicine. So people thought he would be very appropriate.”

But Vlaspolos said her fears were confirmed when Kreipke was accused of misconduct in early 2011. “The timing seemed very suspicious to many of us,” she said.

While Kreipke’s allegations of large-scale grant fraud were a new development, Vlasopolos said she’d heard enough faculty complaints about the school’s grant-handling to have some suspicions.

They included several cases where professors thought money was missing from their research budgets. In some cases, the university tried to charge researchers for the disputed funds, or take it out of future grants.

And Vlasopolos said the pattern didn’t end there: “Whenever anybody went in against the administration in terms of claiming their rights when it came to grant money, they were severely punished,” she said.

Cell biologist Robert Silver was one of those cases.

"There's an old expression, 'Never assume malice when simple incompetence will suffice.' And in too many of these cases, the incompetence is not simple."

Silver was recruited to join the Wayne State faculty in 2001, but says his job there was plagued with problems from the start.

Those culminated a few years later, when Silver got a major research grant from the U.S. Department of Defense. But he says the project was delayed for nearly a year for unexplained reasons, followed by repeated accusations that he misused grant money.

“Numerous times I was being called in to try to justify various expenditures on the grant by Wayne State accounting,” Silver said. “All of them were above board. There was no fraud, there was no misuse of funds.... That was all false.”

Silver said he wasn’t the only faculty member with similar issues. “Across the board, there was complete frustration,” he said.

But unlike Kreipke, Silver had tenure. He eventually resolved his accounting issues with the university, and negotiated an agreement to leave Wayne State in 2012. He’s now a professor of biology at Syracuse University.

Silver said his experience there is like “night and day” compared to Wayne State. “What I experienced at Wayne State would not be tolerated here,” he said.

There are “islands of good there,” Silver said, but also “persistent incompetence. And sometimes it gets very imaginative."

“There’s an old expression, ‘Never assume malice when simple incompetence will suffice.’ And in too many of these cases, the incompetence is not simple.”

Vlasopolos also left Wayne State, retiring early in 2013. “I couldn’t take it anymore: seeing that kind of deep-seated corruption, and refusal to face it on the part of some really major players,” she said.

The allegations against Kreipke

To be clear: Wayne State has always flatly denied all of Kreipke’s allegations.

The faculty “streamlining” committee that Kreipke had been serving on did eventually issue a report that was critical of some university policies, including its handling of research grants. Some of those criticisms were later echoed in a report done by an outside consulting firm, The Huron Group, in 2013 (university administrators say they’ve taken steps since then to improve those processes, and make them more transparent and user-friendly for faculty).

But nothing in those reports suggests the type and level of criminal fraud Kreipke suspected. And university officials say their subsequent treatment of Kreipke had nothing at all to do with his status as a whistleblower, and everything to do with his work as a scientist.

"We could not confirm any of his data. At all."

“We could not confirm any of his data. At all,” says Philip Cunningham, Associate Vice President of Research Integrity at Wayne State.

In 2011, Cunningham was an associate professor in the university’s biology department. He chaired the faculty committee appointed to investigate the allegations of scientific misconduct against Kreipke.

Cunningham says the initial allegations came from a research assistant in the lab run by Kreipke’s mentor, Dr. Jose Rafols. He came forward with concerns that Kreipke was falsifying data on a drug he was testing to treat traumatic brain injuries, “and then he [Kreipke] was publishing those falsified and fabricated results, and that he was also using those falsified and fabricated results to apply for federal grants.”

Cunningham says the university has an obligation to the federal government to investigate such claims whenever they involve federal funds. So that jump-started a painstaking process of reviewing all Kreipke’s work for the past six years: all of his publications, presentations, grant proposals, even lab notebooks and computer files.

Cunningham says what they found was damning, and went beyond the initial allegations: more than 30 instances of scientific fraud and misconduct.

They ranged from a faked letter from a pharmaceutical company giving Kreipke permission to use one of their drugs; to re-labeling pictures or graphs to suggest that one drug was causing a certain result in the lab, when it was actually another drug.

After making those findings, Cunningham says the committee also had an obligation to “correct the scientific record.” In Kreipke’s case, that meant requesting — and ultimately getting — retractions of a number of published articles Kreipke had worked on.

“The risk is that people are going to use this information to develop new therapies,” Cunningham said.

In many of these instances of alleged misconduct, Kreipke wasn’t the sole researcher involved. But Cunningham says the investigation pinpointed him as the culprit.

“The first instance that we could identify of falsified and fabricated data was seven months after Dr. Kreipke joined the lab,” Cunningham said. “And it continued throughout his tenure at the lab.”

Based on the committee’s findings, Wayne State administrators ultimately made the decision to fire Kreipke in 2012. Around that same time, similar new allegations against Kreipke emerged at the Detroit VA Hospital, where he was still working as a health scientist.

Two initial VA inquiries didn’t find enough evidence to open a full investigation there. But a third one, led by a different investigator, did. A similar cycle got underway, and in 2013, the VA fired Kreipke too.

And he didn’t just get fired. Kreipke also received a ten-year ban on receiving federal research funds from the VA.

“One thing that’s a bit unusual in this case is the degree of sanctions that Dr. Kreipke is facing,” says Ivan Oransky. He’s followed Kreipke’s case as a co-founder of the blog RetractionWatch, which aims to provide more transparency to the process behind retracting scientific articles and findings.

“A ten-year ban on funding…that’s actually at the upper end of the scale for these allegations, even when they’re found to be with merit,” Oransky said.

“The worst thing they can do to you”

Kreipke says taken together, the accusations and subsequent punishment amounted to a death sentence for his career.

“The accusation of scientific misconduct is the absolute worst thing they can do to you,” Kreipke said. “Because it takes away any credibility you have.”

But this was just the start of a years-long battle.  Kreipke fought back, challenging the Wayne State and VA decisions every way he could.

Kreipke claims the misconduct charges were either fabricated themselves, or based on acknowledged mistakes blown wildly out of proportion. And he said it was all about retaliation: part of a smear campaign to silence and discredit him as a whistleblower.

Kreipke had come out on the losing end of all those challenges, including a federal whistleblower lawsuit twice dismissed on technical grounds.

That is, until just a few weeks ago. In March, Kreipke finally got a ruling in his favor from a judge with the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board. That’s a kind of administrative court system that resolves disputes across federal agencies.

In a 52-page opinion, Judge Dorothy Moran found that Kreipke’s allegations of grant fraud against the VA and Wayne State were at least “reasonable.”

Furthermore, Moran ruled that VA officials were clearly aware of Kreipke’s allegations, and there was “existence and motive to retaliate” against him as a whistleblower. And she found that “stemmed from the improper influence of WSU over the VA to take action against [Kreipke].”

As for the misconduct charges, “The record shows misrepresentations of data were made,” Moran wrote. However, “although the agency found the appellant’s falsification was willful and intentional, the record shows that the appellant had been lax in his oversight of the lab and that the inaccuracies could have been inadvertent.”

"I think the major unusual element in this case is that Dr. Kreipke was able to actually convince a judge to issue a ruling supporting him as a whistleblower."

Kreipke said that when his lawyer called to tell him about the ruling on a Friday evening, he hung up the phone and slept until late the following morning.

“It was just that feeling of, now I can at least get one night’s sleep without having to think about this thing,” he said. “This is finally a person who’s listening to what’s going on, and judging what’s really going on here.”

Moran also ordered the VA to immediately restore Kreipke’s job, his canceled grants, and reverse the ten-year ban on his grant funding. The VA has so far ignored that order while it tries to appeal (the Detroit VA declined to comment on Kreipke’s case; its attempt to have Moran’s order overturned is still technically pending).

Ivan Oransky of RetractionWatch says that ruling is probably the most remarkable aspect of Kreipke’s case so far. While Oransky isn’t sure Kreipke has fully addressed all of the scientific misconduct charges against him, he says Kreipke’s treatment as a whistleblower in scientific research isn’t necessarily unprecedented.

“It isn’t unusual for allegations to be raised against the person blowing the whistle. It isn’t unusual for the person blowing the whistle to lose his job,” Oransky said.  “I think the major unusual element in this case is that Dr. Kreipke was able to actually convince a judge to issue a ruling supporting him as a whistleblower.”

Oransky said lawyers who’ve handled similar cases call this turn of events “heartening for would-be whistleblowers.”

“A really terrible toll”

But Wayne State Assistant General Counsel Amy Lammers insists Judge Moran flat-out got the facts wrong.

Among other things, “We [Wayne State] do not direct what happens at the VA,” Lammers said. “We don’t compel them to investigate.”

Lammers notes that Wayne State wasn’t technically a party to this particular case, and didn’t get to present its side of the story in court.

Kreipke thinks that if this case plays out to its likely end, with Judge Moran’s decision formally upheld, Wayne State might have to give him his job back too.

But Lammers says that’s simply not going to happen, because Kreipke has exhausted every possible avenue for recourse there.

“Dr. Kreipke has had more legal review of his situation than most people get,” Lammers said.

Nearly seven years after this all got started, Kreipke still has some hope of reviving his career in science. But even if that happens, he says both the professional and personal effects have been devastating.

“I would be completely lying if I didn’t say it is a really terrible toll,” he said.

But for now, Kreipke clings to the hope that something good can come out of this whole situation.

“I understand this is not about me anymore,” he said. “This is about this bigger problem.”