Over the past few years, Christian Kreipke has been embroiled in legal battles with the Detroit VA Medical Center and Wayne State University, where he held a dual appointment. In 2010, Kreipke accused Wayne State of misusing federal funds — then was fired in 2012 when the university brought its own case of research misconduct against him. In 2013, the VA followed suit. In 2014, Kreipke lost a whistleblower lawsuit against the university. As a result of the Wayne State investigation, journals have retracted five of his papers, some as recently as last month.
In March, a judge ordered the Department of Veterans Affairs to reinstate Kreipke’s position, among other requests.
Throughout this process, Kreipke has repeatedly denied committing misconduct, saying that the allegations were an attempt to defang his whistleblower allegations. The administrative judge with the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, which hears these types of cases brought by Federal employees, agreed with Kreipke in his lawsuit against the Detroit VA. According to government documents, the judge awarded Kreipke’s request for “corrective action” against the hospital, which includes reinstating his position there, restoring an existing grant and, more generally, reversing the decision to bar him from receiving VA funds for 10 years.
The 52-page decision includes statements from Kreipke blaming other people for the problems with figure duplication that affected his papers, and saying that he corrected them as soon as he was alerted to issues:
It is undisputed that some incorrect data used in “figures” were essentially copied and pasted into a 2009 VA Poster, a 2010 VA Poster, the 2010 and 2011 neurological articles, and in VA Merit Award application(s). The appellant [Kreipke] acknowledged the inaccuracies involved staining, western blots, and Fluoro-Jade. The appellant stated he moved quickly to correct the inaccuracies when he learned of the issues.
According to Kreipke, two of the papers mentioned in the decision were among the five retracted papers.
The VA may also be ordered to pay Kreipke damages in lost wages, money owed under his grants from the agency, and other expenses.
But, so far, Kreipke noted:
…VA has refused to comply with the Judge’s order for interim relief which includes restoring my reputation and position.
The deputy chief counsel at the Detroit VA told us that the agency has appealed the decision, but would not comment on active litigation.
According to the decision, Kreipke was notified that the U.S. Office of Research Integrity was making findings of research misconduct based in part on the report by Wayne State; the Department of Health and Human Services, which includes the ORI, was also recommending a 10-year disbarment. The recommended decision has been appealed.
This is a big legal win for Kreipke, who has maintained for years that he was fired from Wayne State and the VA in retaliation for blowing the whistle on alleged grant fraud committed by both institutions. Kreipke told us he was pleased with the ruling:
Accusing me of misconduct potentially calls into question my integrity and potentially mitigates my effectiveness in exposing the fraud (i.e., no one would believe someone who makes up data). On top of this, University employees have routinely tried to characterize my whistleblower claim as a reaction to the misconduct claims against me. Thankfully, the Judge recognized that my whistleblowing prompted the spurious charges of misconduct made against me and not the other way around.
As we’ve reported, in the whistleblower lawsuit against WSU, Kreipke claimed that the institution was “involved in a conspiracy,” where it stole almost $170 million from the U.S. government in fraudulent grant proposals. In 2014, a judge dismissed the case against WSU. Kreipke’s attorney, Shereef Akeel, petitioned the decision, which the Supreme Court denied last year.
Paul Thaler, an attorney with more than 25 years of experience representing scientists involved in misconduct proceedings, explained that the judge dismissed the WSU lawsuit largely because there was not enough evidence for the case to move forward to trial based on the allegations in the complaint.
With regards to the most recent ruling, Thaler said:
What is most interesting is that this is a good example for employers to see that even when an underlying whistleblower claim is kicked out by a court, if the employer takes adverse action against an employee for bringing the claim in the first place, the employer can be held responsible for resulting damages suffered by the employee.
What’s rare and very interesting about this case (and somewhat heartening from the perspective of a lawyer who represents scientists in positions similar to Dr. Kreipke), is that an independent federal administrative law judge was willing to look closely at the VA’s AIB decision and found it was not very convincing…What will be very interesting will be to see if they try to use this decision to attack (and try to reverse) the VA and [Wayne State] misconduct findings and to get ORI to reverse or modify its proposed misconduct sanction.
Kreipke told us he may take further action against Wayne State.
In the latest decision, after reviewing the evidence, the judge concluded that:
…the agency failed to show the appellant intended to deceive or mislead the agency; and (2) failed to show the appellant intended to defraud the agency for his own private material gain. Parker, 122 M.S.P.R. at ¶ 10 . Thus, the agency’s evidence in support of its findings and recommendations against the appellant, i.e. long standing falsification and “small” likelihood of rehabilitation were not strong or clear and did not meet the Boards definition of falsification as described above.
The existence and motive to retaliate against the appellant was shown.
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