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Jul 31, 2013 06:02 AM EDT

Northwestern To Pay $3M to Settle Cancer Research Grant Fraud Suit

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Northwestern University is ready to pay nearly $3 million to the federal government for failing to monitor a former prominent cancer researcher and his transactions relating to federal grants.

Dr. Charles L. Bennett, who is accused of misusing $8 million worth federal grants, was the co-director of Northwestern's Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center and a professor at its Feinberg School of Medicine.

Federal authorities said that he used the grant money for professional and consulting services, and for hotels, food and airfare expenses for himself, family and friends between January 2003 and August 2010.

U.S. Attorney, Gary Shapiro said that such misbehaviour "violates the public trust and federal law."

At the time of the alleged fraud, Bennett was the lead researcher on a project funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Shapiro said that the project was focused on studying adverse drug events, multiple myeloma, a blood disorder known as thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, and quality of care for cancer patients.

"Allowing researchers to use federal grant money to pay for personal travel, hotels, and meals and to hire unqualified friends and relatives as 'consultants' violates the public trust and federal law," said Shapiro.

Bennett used the money for a few weekly trips and paid nearly $250,000 to his consultants, which was not part of the grant budget proposal.

Melissa Theis, a former purchasing coordinator in the Feinberg School's department of hematology and oncology, discovered Bennett's wrong ways when she 'noticed red flags in invoices and reimbursement requests.'

In September 2008, she reported the fund abuse to a supervisor and to an accounting services unit at the school. When Theis's concerns were not addressed by the university, she voluntarily left the university in 2008 and filed a federal whistle-blower lawsuit the following year.

The lawsuit claimed that, "despite her efforts, Northwestern refused to seriously address the issues she had brought."

The settlement in the civil suit was unsealed Tuesday by the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. Under the agreement with the government, out of the $3 million, the university will be paying $2.93 million to settle the case and $498,100 to Theis for exposing the unlawful activity and bringing it to the notice of the government.

The school must pay the settlement within 14 working days.

"What you're talking about is dollars stolen from cancer research, and she stood up and did the right thing," said Linda Wyetzner, Theis' attorney.

After working for more than 15 years at the university, Bennett quit in 2010. Currently, he is serving as a tenured professor at the College of Pharmacy at the University of South Carolina. He is also the director of the Center for Medication Safety and Efficacy at the South Carolina College of Pharmacy.

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