I-TEAM UPDATE: Research Monkey Death: Judge rules whistleblower case against AU can move forward
Thursday, May 23, 2019
News 12 at 6 O'Clock/NBC at 7
AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- Our I-Team uncovered allegations of of fraud, forgery, and a cover-up at Augusta University following the death of a research monkey.
More than two years later, a whistleblower case relating to that monkey's death is starting to unfold in court.
On Wednesday, Richmond County Superior Court Judge Michael N. Annis denied the state's request to grant summary judgment in a whistleblower lawsuit. Essentially, state lawyers were asking Judge Annis to throw the entire lawsuit out because of a technicality, but Judge Annis refused.
In February 2017, our I-Team first aired part of an audio recording of a faculty grievance hearing from March 2016. The recording and transcript of that hearing are public record and, therefore, subject to the Georgia Open Records Act. Dr. Jay Hegde requested that hearing.
"I didn't want to go to jail, " he said, "so I made the mistake of blowing the whistle. Look where it got me."
Dr. Hegde was under under oath for the hearing. You can hear him pleading for an independent investigation into the death of his monkey, Ovechkin.
Now, several years later, his lawyer is pleading with a judge.
"I would submit to you, if that was the case, we would have been here in the very beginning of this case and not at the end," Tanya Jeffords argued.
After two years and more than 200,000 documents, she questioned why the state would request a summary judgement dealing with the statute of limitations now.
The two sides met in court after the state argued Dr. Hegde filed his whistleblower lawsuit four days too late. Attorneys say he should have filed his lawsuit on Aug. 6, 2016 for it to be valid. Instead, he filed it on Aug. 10, 2016.
"The fact of the matter is that he knew it on August the 6th. I mean, that's just the way it goes. Now as it regards to any of this other stuff - the faculty committee, Dr. Keel, the president, saying 'I'm not going to listen to them.' That's not in an amended complaint," argued Bryan Webb. He's with the Georgia Department of Law working on behalf of the Board of Regents.
C. Gregory Bryan sat next to Webb, though he did not say anything during the hearing. Augusta University lists him as a Senior Legal Advisor on its website.
It appears the faculty committee Webb referred to is the faculty grievance hearing from March 2016. That's the audio recording and transcript our I-Team obtained under the Open Records Act. Under oath, Dr. Hegde tells faculty members he believes his monkey died of an overdose.
"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," he said during that hearing.
Dr. Hegde goes on to say animal rights activists would make a fuss about it. That could be a motive to keep Ovetchkin's death quiet, especially since there had been protests on campus the month before and the month before that.
That, however, hasn't made it to court. This week's hearing was about the date AU sent a letter to the National Science Foundation, terminating Dr. Hegde's research grant. He believes it was in retaliation for blowing the whistle.
"Otherwise, if they hadn't sent it and he didn't file, they would be arguing that we never took a definitive action. So therefore, you have no case. And they just shouldn't simply be able to have it both ways," Tanya Jeffers argued. "We believe this is a case that the jury should look at."
The judge agreed it should move forward and ruled in favor of Dr. Hegde.
State lawyers made it very clear they will fight this all the way to trial.
"If we don't get this summary judgment granted, we've got plenty of other arguments," Bryan Webb said.
Research facilities like Augusta University receive millions of taxpayer dollars to fund research.
Concealing or falsifying information sent to the federal government is a crime.
We'll continue to follow this for you.