SPECIAL ASSIGNMENT: Research animal death (Part 3)

Published: Feb. 3, 2017 at 1:30 PM EST
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Friday, Feb. 3, 2017

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- After an animal researcher at Augusta University says he tried to blow the whistle about a possible cover-up after the death of his monkey, we're investigating the investigations into that claim.

There could be possible flaws in how cases like this are handled.

The paper trail is a long one. It started 3 years ago at Augusta University. From there, we followed it all the way to the federal government and then back to the place it started, but even with all that mileage, did it ever really go anywhere?

"My career has been destroyed. I do desperately want to get back on track. I did nothing wrong, and I want to get back on track," said Dr. Jay Hegde at a faculty grievance hearing at Augusta University in March of 2016. There, he made more than just waves; he made serious allegations under oath. He's also filed a lawsuit against Georgia Regents University, or GRU, as it was known back then. He cites Georgia's Whistleblower Act, claiming GRU requested termination of his funding for research with the National Science Foundation. If you search Dr. Hegde's grant on the NSF website, you can see it was supposed to total $685,000 over 4 years, but that it suddenly stopped.

Keep scrolling and you'll see the Project Outcome. That's where NSF funded researchers like Dr. Hegde are required to let the public know the results of the research. He reports he was "unable to complete the project" because one of his monkeys apparently died from "an overdose of a narcotic painkiller administered by a GRU veterinarian." He also reports he discovered evidence of "forgery, " and when he tried to blow the whistle, "GRU took a series of measures" that "led to the "premature termination" of the grant at the "specific request of GRU."

He makes those same claims at the faculty hearing. "I'm the one who made the mistake of saying you can't falsify federal records, and I'm taking it on the chin," he said. "So I don't have an expectation that it will get better because I'm the one - I took it to this level of filing a grievance, et cetera, so there will be a lot of people looking to do me in."

Dr. Hegde took his concerns to the federal government. Acting on that whistleblower complaint, the Department of Health and Human Services started asking GRU questions about claims that records of the monkey, named Ovetchkin, "may be falsified."

GRU responded with "no evidence to date has been found in support of the allegations."

The Feds don't appear to question that so, essentially, whistleblower case closed.

We reviewed an investigation report by GRU's internal committee. It includes info about eight people interviewed. Dr. Hegde is not one of them. During the hearing, he questioned why he was not more involved in the investigation into this matter. "What kind of process is it when they investigate a matter that directly involves me where you don't even talk to me?"

Last August, the University pretty much closed the case too, saying investigators, both internal and external, have looked into the allegations and "found no evidence to support ​claims of wrongdoing in the death of the animal in Dr. Hegde's care."

Augusta University's Vice President of Legal Affairs expands on that in a letter. Christopher Melcher was named as one of the respondents. He wrote he couldn't testify at the hearing because "Hegde has retained an attorney and publicly stated his intention to file a lawsuit against the University regarding this complaint." (Dr. Hegde has since filed said lawsuit.) He goes on to say "6 separate entities" investigated, and all determined "no validity to any of the claims in the Hegde complaint." He also says the hearing panel can't make any decisions about Dr. Hegde's research protocol, citing the Animal Welfare Act. He closes his letter, calling for Dr. Hegde to be formally censured for "intentionally bringing false claims" and "intentionally making false and slanderous allegations against University employees, faculty, and staff."

Mr. Melcher does not indicate this letter is under oath.

However, a Sociology professor who testified at the hearing is under oath. "I discovered pretty early on that GRU didn't have a whistleblower policy," said Dr. William Reese. ​He told the panel the University had to put an emergency policy in place because of Dr. Hegde's allegations.

According to our investigation, the University should have had that in place years before. In 2008, University System of Georgia required each institution have one. "So I told Jay that morning or that afternoon. I said they're going to put in writing that you did nothing wrong, and we've got a whistleblower policy now to protect anyone that ever finds himself in this situation going forward." Dr. Reese said he thought that was the end of it and expected to see some sort of paperwork saying that. "Such a document never came," he said. When I asked - a couple of months later when I asked where was such a document, I was told that legal said no."

The lawsuit, like the hearing audio, is public record. So are the USDA inspection and violation reports. That information used to be online for all to see.They've exposed a lot about animal research at Augusta University. Just today, that information was removed from the government website. Reports for all facilities, not just Augusta University, are now gone. Anyone can still request documents, but getting them could take months. Then, there's red tape. Bottom line here: your access to information and a window for watchdogs has just been slammed shut.