SPECIAL ASSIGNMENT: Research animal death

Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- An On Your Side investigation is exposing questions about a possible cover-up at Augusta University when it comes to animal research. The allegations aren't just serious; they could be criminal.

We've been looking into the death of a research monkey for more than a year after learning of a whistleblower complaint.

We kept digging and discovered an animal researcher believes the University falsified documents, tampered with evidence, and lied to the federal government following a monkey's death in January of 2014.

Then, we learned of a faculty grievance hearing in March of 2016 that pertained to that same monkey.

The audio 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 is under oath for the hearing. Others who testified are as well.

That hearing took place more than two years after Ovetchkin, the research monkey was scheduled for a craniotomy to implant a recording device in his brain. The surgery monitoring form says the surgery began at 12:45 on Jan. 7, 2014. The procedure ended at 5:25.

"Until the animal woke up, I was there. I was the surgeon," Dr. Hegde testified.

According to the necropsy report, or animal autopsy, Ovetchkin did not wake up. That's one of the reasons Dr. Hegde says he asked for this hearing.

"This is basically rewritten to come up with a completely different account of what exactly happened," he said.

So what did happen?
Depends on who you ask.

The University reported to the Federal Government that Ovetchkin died from cardiopulminary arrest, citing "repeated sedation because of a delay in the surgery."

Documents also note this happened, again, "under anesthesia."

But in a lawsuit against the university, Dr. Hegde alleges the monkey “died from an apparent overdose of painkiller” given to him “by one of the veterinarians.” He further alleges the “Necropsy on the following day was carried out by the same veterinarian accompanied by a junior vet.”

"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," he said.

They likely would have because they had just been to campus one month before and the month before that. Once our investigation started connecting the dots, we noticed the timing of all this could be important.

In November of 2013, protestors took to campus after accusations that GRU (Augusta University's name at the time) violated the Animal Welfare Act. The Humane Society went undercover and released video of dogs used in dental experiments.

A month later, in December of 2013, The Humane Society makes more allegations and releases more video, This time, it's mice and monkeys.

For the second time in two months, GRU was accused of mistreating research animals. It's safe to say the University did not want a third strike, especially since federal investigators were now involved and inspection reports are posted for all to see on the USDA website.

A December 2013 inspection found expired medicine and monkeys kept in excessively dirty cages. Investigators cited concern for the psychological well-being and demanded the University come up with a plan.

One month after that inspection, Ovetchkin died.

"All I wanted to do was make sure that the record was truthful," he testified, "because I didn't want to get involved in - this is where a federally regulated record of my monkey was falsified, and I knew it, and I didn't report it."

Research facilities like Augusta University receive millions of taxpayer dollars to fund research work. Concealing or falsifying information sent to the federal government is a crime. Thursday News 12 NBC 26 takes a closer look at the allegations made in the Grievance Hearing.

Click here to read part 2.
Click here to read part 3.