The former Iowa State University scientist who defrauded the government has been handed one of the stiffest sentences ever handed for fraudulent research. A U.S. District Judge sentenced Dong-Pyou Han – a 58 year old South-Korean to 57 months in jail. The judge also ordered him to repay $7.2 million and even raised the possibility of him getting deported after serving his jail sentence.
Han had admitted to falsifying the results in a research aimed at developing an AIDS vaccine. His falsification of results gave the appearance that the vaccine was effective in protecting rabbits against HIV – the virus which causes AIDS. The supposed “successes” led to extra federal grants totalling around $20 million.
Han’s fraud was unearthed by fellow researchers at the ISU. They realised that Hans was mixing human blood products into the blood samples from rabbits which had been treated with the experimental vaccine. The result was that the vaccine appeared to be working – which was clearly not the case.
Having been uncovered, Han was pressed on the matter. He admitted having manipulated the results for four years – something which infuriated his fellow researchers. He was forced to resign from ISU, and the National Institutes of Health banned him from participating in federal funded research for three years.
The matter seemed to have been resolved, until the scandal made the headlines. The US attorney’s office pursued an indictment, which ultimately ended Han getting slapped with the hefty sentence.
Han’s sentence is considered hefty for two reasons. For starters, scientists who are charged with research-related fraud almost never go to jail. Most get off with light fines, cautions and suspension from federal research grants. The last scientist who faked research to receive grants was given a six month jail sentence (http://www.masslive.com/news/index.ssf/2010/06/scott_reuben_a_former_baystate.html). Therefore, Han’s 4 years and 9 months jail sentence seems rather harsh.
Secondly, the $7.2 million which he was ordered to repay is somewhat excessive. This is because, although his fraudulent schemes led to extra $20 million, the money didn’t go to his personal account. He didn’t even receive an extra bonus on the $78,000 per year he was earning.
Upon Han’s fraud being discovered, ISU was ordered to repay $496,000 to the federal government. The university also faced a cancellation of $1.4 million in grants.
Given that the university – which received much of the funds – wasn’t required to refund millions of dollars, some question the rationale behind the judge’s $7.2 million. Given that Han has already lost his job of $78,000 per year, how will he repay that money?
The reason for stiff penalties was set out in Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachel Sherle’s request before the judge. She asked the judge to “send a message that regardless if you have a PhD or not, you’re going to be held for your actions.” (http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/crime-and-courts/2015/07/01/dong-pyou-han-sentencing-iowa-state-scientist-aids-vaccine-fraud-case/29560297/)
The judge’s sentence certainly does send a clear message to all research scientists who are on federal grants: the days of getting off lightly after falsifying research to get federal grants are over. Han’s case also sets a clear precedent. Therefore, from now on, any scientist thinking of defrauding the federal government will have to stop and think again.