Updated: USC researcher accused of using grant money for family trips

ashain@thestate.comJuly 31, 2013 

Charles Bennett

An endowed chair at the University of South Carolina, known for his work in drug safety, has been sued by the federal government which alleges he spent federal cancer-research money for personal expenses.

Those allegations led the USC professor’s former school, Northwestern University, to pay a $2.9 million settlement to the government.

Charles Bennett is accused of spending grant money on family travel as well as consulting fees for “unqualified friends and family members,” including his brother and cousin, while at Northwestern, according to the U.S. attorney’s office in Northern Illinois and a lawsuit.

Bennett, who joined the S.C. College of Pharmacy in 2010, denies the accusations, his attorney said.

Bennett is one of 40 professors at South Carolina’s three research universities who hold endowed chairs. Those professors concentrate in scientific fields meant to boost economic development in the state. Work by professors in the SmartState program is paid for by lottery proceeds and matched by private or corporate donors.

Bennett is chairman of USC’s Medication Safety and Efficacy Center of Economic Excellence.

Bennett is an “international leader in the study of adverse drug effects” and is “seeking ways to make drug information more consumer friendly and creating new training tools for healthcare providers,” according to his biography on the SmartState website. He has received $4.2 million in federal research grants.

State records show Bennett receives $211,701 in annual salary from USC. He receives an additional $40,000 in supplements from the USC educational foundation.

USC did not respond to a question on whether school officials knew about the lawsuit when Bennett was hired. The whistleblower lawsuit was sealed and did not appear in federal court records until it was unsealed this week, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Northern Illinois said.

The university said Bennett still was working for USC’s pharmacy school.

In an statement, USC said neither it nor the pharmacy school “are involved in the civil case against Northwestern University or Charles Bennett, nor do we have specific knowledge of the facts or the terms of settlement with Northwestern beyond the information contained in the U.S. Attorney’s press release.”

“We take the stewardship of external grant funds and compliance with all government rules very seriously,” the school added. “We have appropriate oversight in place, but in light of (Wednesday’s) release we will conduct a review of the faculty member’s research grant accounts to ensure all is in order here.”

Northwestern agreed to pay $2.9 million to the federal government this week to settle claims raised in a 2009 whistleblower lawsuit against the school, Bennett and Steven Rosen, head of Northwestern’s cancer center.

The suit accuses Bennett of submitting false claims connected to National Institutes of Health grants to study adverse drug events and quality of care for cancer patients between 2003 and 2010.

Northwestern cooperated with the investigation and did not admit wrongdoing, the U.S. attorney’s office said. Rosen is no longer a defendant, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney said.

The complaint against Bennett is pending.

Efforts to reach Bennett on Wednesday were unsuccessful. Bennett’s attorney, James Becker of Philadelphia, said his client is discussing a resolution with the government.

Bennett could be liable for triple damages and fines of up to $11,000 for each violation proven, the U.S. attorney’s office said.

The former Northwestern employee, Melissa Theis, who filed the whistleblower suit will receive $498,100 from the $2.9 million settlement announced this week.

“This settlement, combined with the willingness of insiders to report fraud, should help deter such misconduct,” said Gary Shapiro, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. “But, when it doesn’t, federal grant recipients who allow the system to be manipulated should know that we will aggressively pursue all available legal remedies.”

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