USC to review grants of sued pharmacy researcher

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The University of South Carolina says it will review the grants of a researcher accused of misspending federal money in his previous job.

Federal prosecutors in Chicago announced this week that Northwestern University agreed to pay nearly $3 million to settle a whistleblower’s lawsuit involving alleged cancer research fraud. The lawsuit claimed the university allowed cancer researcher Charles Bennett, now employed at South Carolina, to submit false claims under grants from the National Institutes of Health.

Bennett allegedly billed expenses for family trips, meals and hotels for himself and friends. He also allegedly billed consulting fees for unqualified friends and relatives, including his brother and cousin.

The former Northwestern employee who filed the suit will receive $498,100 of the $2.9 million settlement.

The U.S. attorney’s office says Northwestern cooperated during the investigation and doesn’t admit liability in the settlement. The complaint against Bennett is pending. He could be liable for triple damages and fines of up to $11,000 for each violation proven.

Bennett’s attorney, James Becker of Philadelphia, denies the allegations. But he told The State newspaper of Columbia (http://bit.ly/11vnTkM ) that Bennett is discussing a resolution with the government.

Bennett joined South Carolina’s School of Pharmacy in 2010. He is among 40 professors at the state’s three research universities who hold endowed chairs, which are paid for by lottery profits and matched by private or corporate donors. The professors’ work in specific scientific fields is meant to boost economic development in the state.

As chairman of USC’s Medication Safety and Efficacy Center of Economic Excellence, Bennett has received $4.2 million in federal research grants. His annual salary of nearly $212,000 is supplemented by $40,000 from USC’s educational foundation. He remains on the job.

The University of South Carolina told the newspaper it is not involved in the civil lawsuit and knows no details about it or Northwestern’s settlement. Its spokespeople did not say whether school officials knew of the lawsuit’s existence when they hired Bennett.

The whistleblower lawsuit was sealed and did not appear in federal court records until this week, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

“We take the stewardship of external grant funds and compliance with all government rules very seriously,” the school told The State. “We have appropriate oversight in place, but in light of (Wednesday’s) release we will conduct a review of the faculty member’s research grant accounts to ensure all is in order here.”

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Information from: The State, http://www.thestate.com

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