A wise philanthropist is a cautious philanthropist. Many people already know to check a few reputable websites before deciding whether or not to donate money to a particular organization. However, some charities are better than others at making sure that the majority of the funds they receive truly benefit the people and causes they are meant to help. If a charity fails to properly appropriate funds from the government, the repercussions can be particularly expensive.
A common cause for charity is cancer treatment and research. A recent whistleblower lawsuit has revealed that even the government must be mindful of who it donates money to. The lawsuit which involves allegations of misappropriation of funds for cancer research has been settled for $2.93 million. The defendant was Northwestern University and the funds provided by the government were allegedly misused by Dr. Charles Bennett. Bennett, worked for Northwestern University as a principal researcher in studies that sought to better understand rare diseases and to develop systems to better identify when cancer drugs have bad side effects. He reaped wide acclaim for his work in this research but, as he did so, he was also allegedly incurring high personal expenses and using cancer research funds to finance them.
Bennett and his wife allegedly took trips for pleasure and then billed the flight, hotel, and meal costs to the National Institutes for Health, claiming that it was all part of his cancer-fighting work. Bennett also allegedly submitted phony bills for his work from 2003 to 2010 while he was working on numerous grants that provided more than $8 million for research. Some of the travel allegedly occurred on a “near weekly basis, and in some cases incurred expenses that were highly excessive” according to the lawsuit. Moreover, Bennett allegedly used whatever grant money was left over at the end of funding periods to fund his salary.
The lawsuit was brought by Melissa Theis under seal as a whistleblower lawsuit in 2009. Theis began working as a temp at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine in November 2007 as a purchasing coordinator before she was hired full time by the university. Theis said she first suspected something when she noticed red flags in the invoices and reimbursement requests “almost immediately” after she began working there.
In September 2008, Theis says she discussed her concerns with her supervisor and an accounting services unit at the University. However, according to the lawsuit, “Northwestern refused to seriously address the issues she had brought.” Theis quit her position with the University in 2008 and filed her whistleblower lawsuit in 2009. After she filed her lawsuit, federal investigators from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the FBI, the NIH, and the U.S. Attorney’s office conducted an investigation into Theis’s allegations.
The lawsuit alleged that the University did not have sufficient controls in place to detect or prevent inappropriate spending.
The University has not admitted to any wrongdoing as part of the settlement.
Although the University has agreed to settle with the government, there are still claims against Bennett and the head of the University’s Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center, Dr. Steven Rosen, which have yet to be settled. The whistleblower lawsuit is a civil proceeding to obtain a refund of government monies allegedly misappropriated. The whistleblower receives a percentage of the recovery or settlement.