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U of L Professor Files Suit, Alleges Malfeasance In Paralysis Program

Eleanor Hasken
in Louisville, Ky., on Wednesday, June 4, 2014. Photo by Eleanor Hasken | Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting

A University of Louisville neurosurgery professor has filed a lawsuit against the school and its top spinal cord researchers, claiming they fired him in retaliation for reporting patient care and safety issues to the federal government.

Daniel Graves, of the Department of Neurosurgery in U of L's School of Medicine, alleges the university violated Kentucky whistleblower protections, according to the suit filed last week in Jefferson Circuit Court.

The allegations take aim at Dr. Susan Harkema, a superstar in the world of paralysis research and the head of a program that raises major funds and the profile of the university.

Last month, WFPL's Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that a federal agency took the unusual and drastic move earlier this year of closing one of Harkema's studies, citing concerns about the validity of the data and unresolved problems with oversight. (Read " Top U of L Researcher Loses Federal Funding For Paralysis Study")

Graves’ status with the university is a matter of dispute. Graves, of Richmond, Texas, alleged in his suit that he was fired by the school.

University spokesman Gary Mans said Tuesday that Graves “is a current employee who has been offered an extension to his existing contract.” Graves’ current contract ends next week, Mans said, and the university offered him an extension through September 30.

The university on Tuesday also released a letter sent in March to Graves by top neurological surgery administrators Scott Whittemore and Joseph Neimat. In it, the two chastise Graves for his financial management of a grant, alleging that he under-budgeted and was on pace to overspend funds to the tune of $54,000.

Graves’ suit also names Neimat and Whittemore as defendants.

Graves and his attorney, Ellen Bowles of Louisville, both declined to comment. So too did Whittemore.

Neimat and Harkema did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

According to the suit, Graves believes that university neurological research procedures "compromised patient care and safety and possibly violated state and federal regulations."

Graves claims he reported his concerns to U of L, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other "authorities." In return, U of L retaliated and ultimately fired him, according to the suit.

Graves also alleged Harkema, Neimat and Whittemore created inaccurate reports and falsified documents to support his termination.

Harkema is a big name in the spinal cord research world. Her work, however, has come under increasing scrutiny this year.

In discontinuing a $914,000 study it funded, the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research cited the school’s audit and “numerous instances of non-compliance and serious non-compliance” of protocol. The agency forbade the researchers from using any of its remaining funds on that study, instead allowing them to reallocate it to other purposes. The federal Office for Human Research Protections is also conducting its own investigation.

( Read the full letter)

Ethicists and research watchdogs interviewed by KyCIR all expressed surprise at the federal decision to abort support of the study, saying it raises big questions about Harkema's study.

Harkema said in a June interview that patients were not at risk. She downplayed the impact of the federal action and noted she voluntarily put the study on hold and has addressed record-keeping issues. Harkema also claimed that a few disgruntled ex-colleagues were pushing bogus complaints with federal regulators.

In the wake of the KyCIR report, the university sent an email to alumni downplaying the federal funding move and scrutiny on the program. It read:

Over the past several months two disgruntled former employees have leveled significant, unsubstantiated accusations at one of the world’s leading spinal cord injury researchers, Dr. Susan Harkema. They recently used the media to advance those accusations. Even though the accusers did not avail themselves of typical avenues within academia for noting concerns about research, the University of Louisville followed best practices and upon receiving the accusations, conducted an internal audit to determine the validity of the complaints.

The email also stated: “Our internationally recognized team is one of the strongest research groups at the University of Louisville and truly is among the world’s leaders seeking ways to help people with paralysis. This is a group all of us at the University of Louisville take pride in.

Managing Editor Brendan McCarthy can be reached at bmccarthy@kycir.orgor (502) 814.6541. Kate Howard can be reached at khoward@kycir.org and (502) 814.6546.

Disclosure: In October 2014, the University of Louisville, which for years has donated to Louisville Public Media, earmarked $10,000 to KyCIR as part of a larger LPM donation. Stephen Campbell and Sandra Frazier, both of whom served on the university board, have donated to KyCIR.

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