U.S. gov’t physicist sentenced to 18 months in prison for fraud

A physicist formerly based at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in California has been sentenced to 18 months in prison for faking data. 

According to the United States Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of California, after receiving millions in government funding between 2008 and 2012, Sean Darin Kinion submitted faked data and reports to make it seem like he’d performed quantum computing work. Kinion pled guilty in June, 2016 to “a scheme to defraud the government out of money intended to fund research.” He has also been ordered to pay back $3,317,893 to the government.

As readers may know, scientists who commit misconduct are rarely sentenced to prison, although there are some exceptions — most notably, Dong-Pyou Han, who last year was sentenced to nearly five years in prison (and pay back $7 million) after spiking rabbit blood samples to make a HIV vaccine look more effective.

Lynda Seaver, director of public affairs at the LLNL, told us Kinion was dismissed in February 2013, following an investigation that found “some discrepancies in his work.”

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office:

In order to build and test the experimental components, Kinion would have had to set up and operate certain equipment.  Kinion requested funds from [the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA)] to purchase the equipment, claimed he had used the equipment successfully to build and test experimental components, and submitted reports and information in support of these claims.  Kinion, however, never setup nor operated the equipment.  Instead, he submitted false and fraudulent data and information to justify continued and further funds to support his purported research.

An IARPA press release dated December 21 notes that Kinion made significant efforts to hide his activities:

As IARPA took deliberate steps to validate Kinion’s purported results, he acted further to conceal and to prevent IARPA from discovering his fraudulent scheme. For example, Kinion knowingly mailed non-functional “bogus” components to IARPA’s validation team; back-dated and altered Federal Express® mailing labels to support his claims for IARPA funding; and conducted a three-day “charade” experiment during another scientist’s visit to LLNL.

Kinion’s sentence starts on January 26, 2017.

Lynda Seaver told Retraction Watch:

The Lab launched its investigation into Darin Kinion in late summer of 2012, when it became apparent there were some discrepancies in his work. Mr. Kinion was cooperative with the investigation and was subsequently placed on leave pending the investigation’s outcome. He was dismissed from the Lab in February 2013.

The investigation was then turned over to the Department of Energy’s Office of the Inspector General, which then turned it over to the Department of Justice.

Asked if Kinion’s actions will lead to any retractions or corrections of his scientific papers, Seaver said:

I’m not aware of any papers that were impacted by this…

Here’s a link to the initial charges against Kinion. In another document, Kinion’s attorney James Phillip Vaughns argues that the government funding wasn’t all wasted, and Kinion performed legitimate research during the time in question: 

The Government persists in characterizing every cent spent by IARPA and LLNL as part of the total loss that it wants the Court to believe Dr. Kinion’s project was…Dr. Kinion’s 2011 publication was co-authored by a Los Alamos scientist, Gennady P. Berman, but the Government downplays its significance because it was published before “fraud was discovered.” However, the article serves to validate Dr. Kinion’s theory (during the period he was allegedly committing the fraud) and to support the position that there was scientific value to be had from the project.

We’ve been unsuccessful in pinpointing the 2011 paper to which Vaughns refers; here is a list of Kinion’s papers on the preprint server arXiv.

An article in the East Bay Times tells more of the prosecutors’ side of the story:

A much bigger loss from the fraud, however, was all the time and work by other researchers to test Kinion’s experimental components and to check and duplicate his research, prosecutors wrote [in court documents].

His fraud also wasted the opportunity others would have had to do research for the government if they had been given the grant money instead of Kinion, prosecutors argued.

As noted, prison sentences for scientists who have committed fraud are rare, despite increases in the number of scientific disputes being brought to the courtroom. Should that change? Most Americans think so, according to a study published earlier this year.

Update, noon Eastern, 12/25/16: Kinion’s attorney, Vaughans, tells Retraction Watch that “there is no cause for retraction of any of Dr. Kinion’s publications:”

In no way did any of the acts at issue in the case affect or even reflect on his many publications to the scientific world at large. In like fashion, nothing of the case reflects on the theoretical foundation of his work in quantum physics or the scholastic value of that work.

Vaughans noted that the prosecutor had sought 51 months in prison for Kinion, so

Compared to that, the 18 months he received could be viewed as a favorable outcome. Whether he actually spends any time in custody is not something he can answer at this point.

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5 thoughts on “U.S. gov’t physicist sentenced to 18 months in prison for fraud”

  1. Unlucky for him that he was not a medical researcher.
    When a medical researcher completely makes up a series of studies, the institution can avoid doing anything by saying “No patients of our hospital were hurt”, because there weren’t any. Those hurt are the real patients who (afterwards) get the wrong treatment based on the fictional research. Sad for him that “No photons were hurt” doesn’t give the same level of spurious reassurance.

  2. The papers on arXiv are mainly related to his previous work. There are only 4 preprints related to the quantum computing work, and all seem out to be theoretical/simulation based. AFAIU no data was published, but he probably returned some progress report to DARPA.

    Ironically, the 4 preprint he did there are completely unrelated to his previous colleagues (at leas one of which would have been very valuable for his new research as a collaborator – so it is irritating to me what exactly was going on there.)

  3. Good case and good precedence.

    Send the thugs to jail!

    When a dishonest scientist uses scarce resources to do dishonest “science” that person deprive an honest scientist resource to do honest science. We are all harmed – locus standi!

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