Employers at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute have robust methods to verify job applicants’ resumes. But the institute’s leadership found itself less prepared to deal with individuals concealing connections to China.
“One of the things we’ve learned in all of this is there have been active efforts to conceal,” said David de La Parte, in-house general counsel at Moffitt. “There were active efforts to not reveal the true background and identities of some of these folks.”
As the Tampa-based institution deals with the fallout of a Chinese meddling scandal, Moffitt leaders on Friday returned $1.1 million in state funding. De La Parte told the House Select Committee on the Integrity of Research Institutions that money largely had been earmarked for salaries of six individuals no longer working with the Cancer Center.
But lawmakers still worry not enough is being done by Florida researchers to prevent theft and fraud.
“When you found out what you did about these employees, did you not feel an obligation to those who provided funding to notify them?” said Rep. Colleen Burton, a Lakeland Republican.
For Moffitt’s part, de la Parte said the institution released information widely as soon as it learned of potential conflicts with Howard McLeod, a senior member in Moffitt’s department of cancer epidemiology in Tampa, and the Chinese government.
But information didn’t get uncovered by Moffitt in one single blow. Investigation over the past months has revealed McLeod’s undisclosed relationship to China’s Thousand Talents Program.
Ultimately, the Cancer Center severed all ties with McLeod and Yijing He, a Moffitt employee who apparently attended orientation at Moffitt but then worked entirely in China.
He was paid $491,358 from fiscal years 2014 through 2019, according to Moffitt.
Rep. Joe Geller, an Aventura Democrat, said he appreciated Moffitt’s transparency and willingness to return the money.
But state officials have expressed alarm that it took so long to realize so much information was being shared with the Chinese government.
De La Parte acknowledged that collaboration with a Chinese university didn’t provide the benefits of a usual institutional partnership. Trials on cancer treatments were done in conjunction with a cancer hospital in China, but a lock-down on intellectual property sharing by the Chinese government ultimately meant not as much information was provided to Moffitt.
Meanwhile, FBI experts testified Monday to the Select Committee that there’s an increasing effort on the part of the Chinese Government to steal information from U.S. institutions.
That includes online hacking of U.S. systems from overseas. But there can also be data theft with visiting U.S. scientists in China. A special agent with the FBI compared it to sophisticated data hacks like the Equifax breach in 2017.
Experts with the University of Florida discussed advances in disclosure research that allows better checks on job applicants than existed until very recently. Moving from paper records to database access requires researchers there to participate in disclosure processes, according to Terra DuBoise, interim Chief Compliance Officer. It also allows the University to learn more about relationships applicants may have but that they fail to disclose.
Of course, de La Parte said Moffitt moved to electronic referencing on applications years ago. But even knowing of problems, it has taken investigators looking into Moffitt’s scandal weeks to learn what it has about research published in Chinese and not normally cross-referenced in English-language academic clearinghouses.
Much of the sharing of Moffitt intellectual property, research for which the state of Florida holds a significant stake, was intentionally concealed. Even now, Moffitt cannot say for sure its own stateside employees who have since been terminated knew about how data was used.
“This was a predatory action by the People’s Republic of China,” he said.