Univ. faces lawsuit for research

Case could affect Univ.’s NBAF candidacy

JOANN ANDERSON –The Red and Black.com



A federal lawsuit filed against University researchers, professors and the Board of Regents alleges that fabricated data from published research resulted in more than $1 million in federal grants for the University.

Two farming families and David L. Lewis, a former microbiologist for the Environmental Protection Agency and an adjunct senior research scientist in the School of Ecology, filed a lawsuit against several University-affiliated parties, including John Walker, Julia W. Gaskin, William P. Miller, E. William Tollner, L. Mark Risse, the Board of Regents and the University’s Research Foundation, according to court documents obtained by The Red & Black.

The case, filed in 2006, was initially sealed.

Walker was an employee of the EPA and was the Biosolids Program team leader in the Office of Wastewater Management. Gaskin is a land application specialist in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering.

In 1998, Walker assembled a team including Gaskin, Miller, Tollner and Risse to investigate sewage sludge processed by a wastewater treatment plant in Augusta, according to court documents.

The city of Augusta was fighting lawsuits filed by two farming families, R.A. McElmurray III and G. William Boyce, who claimed that the sludge processed by the plant and later was distributed as fertilizer for the farms contained “hazardous chemical wastes” that killed their cattle, according to the court documents.

Sewage sludge is the semi-solid material left over from water treatment processes. It has been approved by the EPA to treat soil.

Who’s involved

Miller is a professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Sources. Tollner is a professor in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering. Risse is an associate professor of engineering in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering.

The Risse Project

The documents show from 1998 to 2003, the researchers carried out the investigation, known as the “Risse project.” The scientists were directed to analyze historical data of Augusta’s sewage sludge, measure selected heavy metals and analyze heavy metal concentrations in soil samples from land treated with Augusta’s sewage sludge.

Documents claim the Risse project researchers fabricated soil results by collecting samples during a drought, when levels of toxins were “misleadingly low.”

The Gaskin Paper

A paper principally written by Gaskin was published in the January/February 2003 issue of the Journal of Environmental Quality. The paper stated Augusta’s sewage sludge program complied with environmental laws and did not pose a significant risk to cattle, documents show.

Files show researchers revealed results from 20 soil samples but failed to include samples from the McElmurray and Boyce farms.

“It was gross scientific misconduct on their part not to inform readers of the Gaskin paper that UGA had analyzed soil samples collected from farms where cattle deaths were attributed to hazardous wastes taken up by forages from Augusta’s sewage sludge,” files state.

Documents show that as a result of the Gaskin paper, the defendants obtained national attention and $1.6 million in federal grants.

The plantiffs say that the “defendants, fully supported by UGA administrators at the highest levels, knowingly refuse to acknowledge and/or correct any of the false scientific data and continue to use the false information to obtain federal assistance,” according to the documents.

Lewis, the principal plantiff in the case, was hired by the EPA in 1998 to investigate sludge in Augusta, the court documents state.

The Risse researchers became “vocal opponents” to Lewis’ work, and made allegations of scientific misconduct against Lewis beginning in Sept. 2000, according to documents. The allegations were investigated by the EPA’s Office of Inspector General, which found the charges “had no basis in any facts,” documents show.

False Claims Act

Two letters sent to University President Michael Adams in 2008 from Lewis’ lawyer, Edwin Hallman, stated the case involved many levels of supervision, including the president’s office, the Baltimore Examiner reported Thursday.

“The False Claims Act lawsuit will prove, in great detail, how every level of supervision at the University of Georgia, including the office of the president, was directly involved in publishing the fake scientific data and preventing faculty members and a visiting scientist, Dr. David Lewis, from blowing the whistle on the scientific fraud occurring at EPA and the University of Georgia,” Hallman wrote in a Feb. 29 letter to Adams, obtained by the Examiner.

The False Claims Act imposes liability on anyone who “knowingly presents, or causes to be presented [to the U.S.] a false … claim for payment or approval,” according to the documents.

Deeper Implications?

Hallman wrote in a March 20 letter to Adams that the case may affect the University’s candidacy for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, the Examiner reported.

“I can fully appreciate the ramifications it would have on the University of Georgia’s bid to become a national center for agro-bioterrorism research if President Adams were to truthfully acknowledge the role his office has played in the fabrication of scientific data,” Hallman wrote.

The Office of Research cannot comment on pending litigation, Terry Hastings, director of public relations for research, said in a phone interview Thursday.

Mayor Heidi Davison said in a phone interview Thursday she was unable to comment, because she is not involved with the case and that it is a University matter.

Efforts to reach Lewis and his attorney were unsuccessful Thursday afternoon.

Efforts to reach Gaskin, Risse, Walker and Miller were also unsuccessful Thursday afternoon.

The administration cannot comment on pending litigation, Tom Jackson, vice president for public affairs, said in a phone interview Thursday. But, Jackson said Lewis’ case is unrelated to the University’s status as a candidate for the NBAF.

“We haven’t studied the lawsuit, but this heightens our concerns about the University’s assurances of safety regarding the NBAF,” Grady Thrasher, co-founder of Foundation for Athens Quality of Life, an anti-NBAF group, said Thursday in a phone interview.