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Doctors Behaving Badly: Drug researcher was addicted to falsehoods

Doctors Behaving Badly: Drug researcher was addicted to falsehoods

Picture of William Heisel

Clinical psychologist William Fals-Stewart should have quit while he was ahead.

While studying drug use at the University of Buffalo Research Institute on Addictions, Fals-Stewart was accused in 2004 of faking his data in reports to the federal government. In one case, he said he had studied more than 200 subjects, yet he only had consent forms for about 50.

He was trying to keep the grant money flowing from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The university held scientific misconduct hearings in 2007, and Fals-Stewart literally called in the best possible sources: the NIDA staff members who administered the federal grants.

They testified over a speaker phone that, far from misconduct, what Fals-Stewart was doing was standard practice. Any discrepancies between the number of people who had taken part in Fals-Stewart's studies and the number reported to the feds were explained away.

Fals-Stewart won the misconduct case, but he was forced out of his position at the university.

Feeling emboldened, Fals-Stewart then sued the state of New York for wrongful termination. He asked for $4 million, claiming his reputation had been damaged. He also filed complaints with the feds saying that the state university system had been misusing federal research funds.

These were both bad moves.

New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is not an attorney you want to try to fool. While his staff was investigating Fals-Stewart's claims to prepare the state's defense, they discovered that the grant administrators who had testified were professional actors. As Caitlin Tremblay, Campus Editor for the UB Spectrum, writes:

The actors were told by Fals-Stewart that they were partaking in a mock trial.  The actors had no idea they were at a real hearing or even that they were impersonating real people. Fals-Stewart paid them and provided them with scripts, which were full of inaccuracies in regard to his research.

He also fabricated an email from a University of Miami researcher, according to the attorney general, to prove that other researchers were saying nasty things about him.

Confronted with the attorney general's discoveries, Fals-Stewart withdrew his lawsuit in 2009. In February, Fals-Stewart was arrested and charged with attempted grand larceny, perjury, identity theft, and other felonies. He could serve 15 years in prison. WIVB in Buffalo has posted the text of the felony complaint.

Cuomo said in a press release:

The charges in this case allege a pattern of lies and deceit that a public employee used to attempt to defraud New York's taxpayers of millions of dollars. The brazen crimes allegedly committed by this individual outline a series of frauds that could have damaged our outstanding SUNY system.

Fals-Stewart better hire a real lawyer to handle his case. Not someone who plays one on TV.

Final question: Fals-Stewart appears to be affiliated with other research organizations, including RTI International in North Carolina. When fraud rears its head, call the other places where a researcher works to find out whether they have launched their own inquiry.

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