Less than a year after the area’s top economic and political dignitaries celebrated the opening of a new $13 million addition for cancer research at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria, Jasti Rao, the internationally known researcher and driving force behind the center, was under investigation by the medical school for allegations of ethical and research misconduct, including destroying evidence of misconduct and accepting bribes and kickbacks from fellow employees.
The investigations, which are apparently ongoing, prompted Rao to file a federal discrimination lawsuit earlier this month against Dr. Sarah Rusch, regional dean of UICOMP, and Dr. Dimitri Azar, dean of the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago. University officials did not pursue similar allegations against non-Indian researchers, according to the lawsuit. Rao, born in India, is a citizen of Illinois, it states.
The lawsuit also names Christopher Gondi, a research assistant professor hired by Rao in 2001, and accuses him of defamation and unlawful eavesdropping.
Rao’s suit, filed in Chicago, provides the most public glimpse yet of circumstances surrounding his sudden and surprising departure from UICOMP last March. It also indicates Rao faces the prospect of “professionally damaging accusations” from the university’s investigation that could “soon be made public.”
Rao is asking to be reinstated to his former position at UICOMP.
“This was a last resort,” his attorney, Ruth Major of Chicago, said of the suit. In spite of months of private discussions and favorable comments from colleagues, the university will not allow Rao to return, Major said.
UICOMP spokesman Dave Haney said the university has no comment on a personnel matter involving a former employee and pending litigation, “except that we take the integrity of research, academic work and conduct by our staff and students very seriously.”
After Rao’s resignation last year, state Rep. Dave Leitch, R-Peoria, who played a key role in obtaining funding to build the research center, said: “The problem is when you get these abrupt resignations for health reasons, it creates all kinds of speculation. It raises more questions than answers.”
Rao’s complaint reads like a suspense thriller set in the sterile world of academic research:
A renown cancer researcher — at one time recipient of more National Institute of Health grants for brain cancer research than any other researcher in the country, winner of the college of medicine’s faculty of the year award as recently as 2011 — suddenly finds himself forced to resign amid a backdrop of unfair or untrue allegations of plagiarism, uncorrected research errors and fraud in research coming out of his lab, though not necessarily from the researcher himself.
All this, according to the lawsuit, after Rao had initiated his own internal review of work by other researchers who reported to him. Some minor, easily corrected errors were found and he warned his researchers he would hold them accountable for scientific misconduct.
Page 2 of 2 - But Rusch and subsequently Azar pursued investigations of anonymous allegations made against Rao, according to the suit, and used limited, illegally obtained recordings from Gondi to portray Rao as attempting to cover up errors by researchers in his lab and accepting bribes or kickbacks. The university would not accept Rao’s explanation that he lent money to Gondi as he did for many lab employees.
“The University pursued an investigation into alleged academic integrity issues in Dr. Rao’s lab even though it elected not to address similar issues involving other non-Indian University officials,” the lawsuit states, “and despite every indication, including assurances from the researchers themselves, that the integrity of the data and the validity of the research were not impacted.”
Pam Adams can be reached at 686-3245 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @padamspam.