The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) has agreed to pay the U.S. $10 million to settle claims that it improperly charged NIH-funded research grants for time spent by researchers on non-grant related activities such as developing, preparing, and writing new grant applications, teaching, and engaging in other administrative activities, the Department of Justice announced today.
“The NIH has finite resources to support important research across the nation,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Clark for the Department of Justice’s Civil Division. “Today’s settlement demonstrates our commitment to protect those resources by ensuring that NIH grants funds are used for the purposes for which they were intended.”
“Federal grant recipients must use the grant funds they receive on tasks that specifically relate to the funded project. Those that improperly charge the government for costs unrelated to the project must be held accountable,” said U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Department of Justice have a duty to protect government resources and ensure they are used appropriately.”
“Taxpayers funds for medical research are finite and the need for scientific advances is great; therefore, it’s critical that these resources are used as intended,” said Special Agent in Charge Maureen R. Dixon, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General. “Working with our law enforcement partners, our investigators will continue to protect these resources so that they are spent appropriately.”
TSRI is a non-profit biomedical research institute with campuses located in Jupiter, Florida and La Jolla, California. TSRI receives millions of dollars in funding from NIH through hundreds of grants each year. The settlement resolves allegations that between 2008 and 2016, TSRI failed to have a system in place for its faculty to properly account for time spent on activities that cannot be charged directly to NIH-funded projects or are unrelated to the research activities of the NIH-funded project. Consequently, the U.S. contended that TSRI improperly charged time spent by faculty on developing, preparing, and writing new grant applications directly to existing NIH-funded projects, rather than allocating such charges as indirect costs. The U.S. also alleged that TSRI improperly charged NIH-funded projects for time spent by its faculty on other activities unrelated to the funded projects, such as teaching, TSRI committee work, and other administrative tasks.
The settlement resolves allegations originally brought in a lawsuit filed under the qui tam, or whistleblower, provisions of the False Claims Act by Thomas Burris, Ph.D, a former TSRI employee. The act permits private parties to sue on behalf of the government for false claims for government funds and to receive a share of any recovery. Dr. Burris will receive $1.75 million.
The settlement was the result of a coordinated effort by the Civil Division of the Department of Justice, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland, and the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services.
The case is captioned U.S. ex rel. Burris v. The Scripps Research Institute, Case No. 1:15-CV-01443 (D. Md.). The claims resolved by the settlements are allegations only; there has been no determination of liability.