I-TEAM UPDATE: Judge says he’ll make decisions in 30 days about how case moves forward
AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - We have an update on an I-Team investigation into allegations of fraud, forgery, and a cover-up at Augusta University.
Back in 2017, we uncovered claims the university lied to the federal government about how a research animal died.
Now, a whistleblower case is unfolding in court.
It sure looks like Augusta University wants to make this go away, but after five years and 200,000 documents, it’s slowly moving forward.
Three years ago, state lawyers tried to get the whole thing thrown out on a technicality, but the judge said no.
Wednesday, state lawyers were back in court to argue case shouldn’t go before a jury. Judge Stone said he needed more time to make that decision. He says he’ll make his decision in 30 days.
“I didn’t want to go to jail,” said Dr. Jay Hegde, a researcher for AU. “So, I made the mistake of blowing the whistle. Look where it got me.”
That statement came from an audio recording AU likely doesn’t want you to hear. Dr. Hegde was under oath for the hearing, but it wasn’t in court. It was a faculty grievance hearing. That hearing is public record, so it should have been available to anyone, yet News 12 had to get our lawyers involved to get a copy of it back in 2017.
Fast forward five years. AU lawyers have now enlisted the help of the Georgia Attorney General’s Office to fight this in court.
The case centers around a research monkey, named Ovetchkin, who died in 2013 after a procedure.
“Until the animal woke up, I was there. I was the surgeon,” Dr. Hedge said in the grievance hearing.
According to the necropsy report or animal autopsy, Ovetchkin did not wake up, which is one of the reasons Dr. Hegde told his peers he asked for the faculty hearing.
“This is basically rewritten to come up with a completely different account of what exactly happened,” he said.
So what happened? Depends on who you ask.
AU, then named Georgia Regents University, reported to the federal government Ovetchkin’s cause of death was “cardiopulmonary arrest,” citing repeated sedation because of a delay in the surgery.
In the lawsuit now playing out in court, Dr. Hegde alleges the monkey died from an apparent overdose of painkillers. He told fellow faculty members that could be a reason to cover this up.
“If the animal died of a drug overdose, it becomes it’s a reportable incident and would have to be reported to the federal regulators and the federal regulators, by rule, would have to post it on a public website. The animal rights activists would make a big fuss about that,” said Dr. Hegde.
They likely would have; they had just been to campus to protest one month before and the month before that.
Wednesday’s hearing also centered around Ovetchkin’s brain.
In 2019, Hedge’s lawyer, Tanya Jeffords, asked the court to order forensic testing of Ovetchkin’s brain tissue AU sent to a lab in Massachusetts.
Since then, the original judge on the case retired. Then came COVID and COVID delays, so all of this is coming three years later.
Back then, AU’s lawyers first said the tissue didn’t exist. Then, they admitted they made a mistake, and it did exist, but they don’t want to test it.
Back in 2017, the I-Team first told you Dr. Hegde testified the tissue samples couldn’t belong to Ovetchkin because they were from a different kind of monkey.
“They don’t even belong to the species,” testified Dr. Hegde.
Dr. Hegde testified the photos attached to the necropsy report can’t be Ovetchkin’s, either.
“The brain section that they say the necropsy’s based on doesn’t belong to the same monkey,” he said in the faculty grievance hearing.
In court Wednesday, state lawyers argued the request to test the tissue came after the discovery period closed, so they believe it shouldn’t be allowed. They also told Judge Stone it’s been stored in chemicals, so it could be altered. They say another problem is here’s nothing left of Ovetchkin to compare the lab samples to, so they believe the tests wouldn’t be able to reveal much of anything anyway.
Dr. Hedge’s lawyer says that doesn’t matter. She told the judge all he needs to prove is that the tissue doesn’t even belong to a monkey. She says if he’s right and it doesn’t belong to a monkey, it essentially proves the fraud and cover-up he’s been alleging for years now. If he’s wrong, she says it could be used against Dr. Hedge in court, so why not test it if the outcome could help either side?
Judge Stone says he will make a decision on the tissue testing and Dr. Hedge’s right to a jury trial in the next 30 days. The I-Team will be watching and will pass on any updates as soon as we get them.
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