Burlington, Vermont - March 17, 2005 --The United States Attorney's Office for the District of Vermont, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Inspector General (OIG) and Office of Research Integrity (ORI) announced today that Dr. Eric T. Poehlman, 49, a former tenured research professor at the University of Vermont (UVM) College of Medicine in Burlington, Vermont, has agreed to a comprehensive criminal, civil, and administrative settlement related to his scientific misconduct in falsifying and fabricating research data in numerous federal grant applications and in academic articles from 1992 to 2002.
According to court documents filed today, Dr. Poehlman has agreed to plead guilty to making material false statements in a research grant application in April 1999, upon which the National Institutes of Health (NIH) paid $542,000 for Dr. Poehlman's research activities. In addition, Dr. Poehlman has agreed to pay $180,000 to settle a civil complaint related to numerous false grant applications he filed while at UVM. In addition, Dr. Poehlman will pay $16,000 in attorney's fees to counsel for Walter F. DeNino, a research assistant whose complaint of scientific misconduct spurred an investigation by UVM. Also, Dr. Poehlman has agreed to be barred for life from seeking or receiving funding from any federal agency in the future, including all components of the Public Health Service, and to submit numerous letters of retraction and correction to scientific journals related to his scientific misconduct. Dr. Poehlman also agreed to be permanently excluded from participation in all Federal health care programs. In these agreements, Dr. Poehlman has admitted that he acted alone in falsifying and fabricating research data and filing false grant applications.
"Preserving the integrity of the grant process administered by the Public Health Service is a priority for the Department of Justice," said United States Attorney David V. Kirby. "This prosecution demonstrates that academic researchers will be held fully accountable for fraud and scientific misconduct. Dr. Poehlman fraudulently diverted millions of dollars from the Public Health Service to support his research projects. This in turn siphoned millions of dollars from the pool of resources available for valid scientific research proposals. As this prosecution proves, such conduct will not be tolerated."
Acting Assistant Secretary for Health, Cristina V. Beato, M.D., acknowledges the "invaluable assistance of the Department of Justice in bringing this case to a conclusion and upholding the high standards for research integrity in research supported by the Public Health Service." HHS actions against Dr. Poehlman include a life time debarment from receiving Public Health Service research funds and an agreement to retract or correct ten scientific articles due to research misconduct. Dr. Beato added that "while criminal charges against research scientists are rare, the egregiousness of Dr. Poehlman's conduct in this case fully supports the actions of the U.S. Attorney's Office and the administrative actions taken by HHS." Through ORI, HHS is authorized to investigate and oversee institutional investigations of allegations of research misconduct in order to protect the integrity of Public Health Service funded research.
Dr. Poehlman will appear for arraignment and to plead guilty to the criminal charge filed today at a date to be determined by the Court. Dr. Poehlman faces up to five years imprisonment on the criminal charge, but the United States has agreed to take no position on a request by Dr. Poehlman to receive a more lenient sentence based upon his cooperation with authorities and his acceptance of responsibility. The civil settlement agreement will become effective after approval by the Court. The administrative settlement will be effective immediately.
A. Dr. Poehlman's Research Activities and Scientific Misconduct
From 1987 to 2001, Dr. Poehlman held various research positions as an assistant, associate, and full professor of medicine at the UVM College of Medicine in Burlington, Vermont (1987-1993; 1996-2001), and the University of Maryland in Baltimore, Maryland (1993-1996). In these academic positions, Dr. Poehlman conducted research on human subjects related to exercise physiology and other topics that was funded primarily by grants from federal public health agencies and departments, including the NIH, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ("USDA"), and the Department of Defense.
From in or about 1992 to 2000, Dr. Poehlman submitted seventeen (17) research grant applications to federal agencies or departments that included false and fabricated research data. In these grant applications, Dr. Poehlman requested approximately $11.6 million in federal research funding. In most cases, Dr. Poehlman falsified and fabricated research data in the "preliminary studies" sections of grant applications in order to support the scientific basis for and his expertise in conducting the proposed research. Reviewers of these grant applications relied on the accuracy of the "preliminary studies" to determine if a grant should be recommended for award. While many of the grant applications were not awarded, NIH and USDA expended approximately $2.9 million in research funding based on grant applications with false and fabricated research data.
Dr. Poehlman falsified and fabricated research data in grant applications and research papers related to several topics including his study of the impact of the menopause transition on women's metabolism ("the Longitudinal Menopause Study"), his study of the impact of aging in older men and women on a wide range of physical and metabolic measures ("the Longitudinal Study of Aging"), and his proposal to study the impact of hormone replacement therapy ("HRT") on obesity in post-menopausal women ("the Prospective HRT Study"). Dr. Poehlman also presented falsified and fabricated data in grant applications and academic papers related to his study of metabolism in Alzheimer's patients and the effect of endurance training on metabolism.
B. The Longitudinal Menopause Study: 1994-2000
Beginning in 1994, Dr. Poehlman began presenting research data to academic colleagues that was purportedly from a study of women who were tested for basic metabolic characteristics before and after their transition through menopause. Dr. Poehlman presented the findings of the purported Longitudinal Menopause Study in an academic paper entitled "Changes in Energy Balance and Body Composition at Menopause: A Controlled Longitudinal Study," which was published by the Annals of Internal Medicine in 1995 ("the 1995 Annals Article"). The purported Longitudinal Menopause Study and the 1995 Annals Article were based almost entirely on falsified and fabricated research data. Dr. Poehlman represented in the 1995 Annals Article that he had tested 35 healthy women for basic metabolic characteristics and retested the same women six years later for the same characteristics. In fact, Dr. Poehlman falsified and fabricated test results for all but three of the 35 women in the study. From 1995 to 2000, Dr. Poehlman used the false and fabricated research data from the Longitudinal Menopause Study and the Annals Article in nine NIH grant applications, two USDA grant applications, and an additional six published academic papers, which were often cited in the grant applications.
C. The Longitudinal Study of Aging: 1996-2000
In 1996, Dr. Poehlman initiated a new project where he planned to recruit subjects who had previously been tested at UVM from 1987 to 1993 and retest them for the same and additional physical and metabolic characteristics over time. Beginning in 1999, Dr. Poehlman began presenting falsified and fabricated data from this Longitudinal Study on Aging to seek additional federally-funded grants for his research projects. In these grant applications, Dr. Poehlman exaggerated the number of subjects tested and changed the values for the physical characteristics of the subjects and the test results for these subjects (often reversing the values from the initial test and the retest) in order to create trends during the aging process that were not reflected in the actual research data. In 1999 and 2000, Dr. Poehlman presented the same or similar false research data in three grant applications to the NIH and to the USDA.
D. The Prospective Hormone Replacement Therapy ("HRT") Study: 1999-2000
Beginning in 1996, Dr. Poehlman was a co-investigator on a study at UVM designed to evaluate the effect of HRT on 20 post-menopausal women over several years time. Among other things, the study had double-blind controls so that the researchers and the patients were unaware of any test results (or even who received HRT or the placebo) until the study was completed in 2002. In 1999 and 2000, Dr. Poehlman used data purportedly from the Prospective HRT Study in two grant applications to NIH seeking federal funding for additional HRT studies. In fact, Dr. Poehlman did not have access to the data and just fabricated the preliminary test results in the grant applications.
E. UVM and Federal Investigations: 2000-2004
Beginning in December 2000 and continuing until April 2002, the UVM College of Medicine conducted an investigation of scientific misconduct by Dr. Poehlman while at UVM. The investigation began in response to allegations of scientific misconduct by Walter F. Denino, one of Poehlman's research assistants. During the course of this investigation, Dr. Poehlman destroyed electronic evidence of his falsifications and fabrications, presented false testimony, presented falsified documents, and influenced other witnesses to provide false documents to the investigating authorities. In September 2001, Dr. Poehlman resigned from UVM and moved to Montreal, Canada to work as an academic researcher. Dr. Poehlman has subsequently left his academic position in Canada.
Following the UVM investigation, the matter was referred to the United States Attorney's Office and the ORI within the Public Health Service. Scientists at ORI working with investigators at OIG-HHS and the United States Attorney's Office then conducted a far-reaching investigation into all of Dr. Poehlman's grant applications and scientific publications. As a result of this investigation, Dr. Poehlman agreed to enter into the comprehensive criminal, civil, and administrative settlement filed in U.S. District Court today.
The United States Attorney's Office wishes to recognize the hard work and dedication of UVM professors and staff who conducted the initial investigation of Dr. Poehlman's scientific misconduct. A redacted version of the UVM Investigative Report is included in the court documents filed today. As part of the agreements filed today, Dr. Poehlman has accepted the findings in the UVM Investigative Report.
ORI and the U.S. Attorney's Office also acknowledge the important role that individual scientists have in identifying and responding to research misconduct. ORI depends largely on the assistance of honest research scientists in the lab in discovering and reporting suspected misconduct, as occurred in this case. Without their assistance, ORI and HHS would have great difficulty in taking appropriate actions to protect the public health.
The United States Attorney's Office also wishes to recognize the professionalism and tireless efforts of the scientific and criminal investigators at the ORI and the OIG, and the attorneys in the Office of General Counsel at HHS.
Dr. Poehlman is represented by Robert B. Hemley, Esq., and Andrew D. Manitsky, Esq., of Gravel and Shea in Burlington, Vermont. The criminal and civil cases are being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Carol L. Shea and Stephen D. Kelly.