PEORIA — Renowned cancer researcher Jasti Rao's federal discrimination lawsuit against University of Illinois College of Medicine officials is a ploy to force the school to reveal results of internal investigations into his alleged ethical and research misconduct, including accepting bribes and kickbacks from fellow employees, said the man who recruited him to Peoria in 2000.
"He feels like to clear his name, he's going to push for the final report to come out because he thinks what they're going to find are trivial issues," said Dr. Don Rager, retired dean of the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria.
Rao originally cited health reasons for his abrupt departure from UICOMP in March 2013. But his discrimination lawsuit, filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court's Northern District in Chicago, says he was forced to resign or face having damaging accusations made public. Rao, a native of India, alleges the university failed to pursue similar allegations of wrongdoing against non-Indian researchers.
"It's what I call a thinly disguised maneuver to couch this in discrimination and get it in the Northern District Court, where a plaintiff is more likely to get a favorable jury than in Peoria," said Rager after reading a copy of Rao's 22-page complaint. He was reached by telephone at his Washington state vacation home.
Rager remains a Rao supporter and has talked to him recently. Rager also served as intermediary for Rao shortly after he resigned. In April 2013, at Rao's request, Rager told UICOMP officials Rao wanted to withdraw his resignation. They balked at the request.
The lawsuit also asks that Rao be reinstated to his former position as senior associate dean of research and head of the department of cancer biology and pharmacology.
The lawsuit names three defendants: current UICOMP regional dean Dr. Sarah Rusch; Dr. Dimitri Azar, dean of the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago; and Christopher Gondi, a research assistant professor hired by Rao in 2001.
Rao's attorney, Ruth Major of Chicago, also has filed discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in a procedure that, if successful, would allow the University of Illinois Board of Trustees to be added to the list of defendants.
While Rusch and Azar are accused of violating U.S. civil rights laws, Gondi is alleged to have defamed Rao and eavesdropped on him illegally in a misguided effort to show Rao took bribes and kickbacks from employees.
Rusch and Gondi also are accused of inducing the university to terminate Rao's employment.
"It appears to me it would be a mistake for Rao to engage in this litigation if he did not feel comfortable that whatever's uncovered would clear his name," Rager said.
UICOMP spokesman Dave Haney has said the university has no comment on a personnel matter but it takes integrity of academic research seriously.
Page 2 of 2 - Rager said he doubts the university will release any details about circumstances surrounding the investigations and Rao's departure.
"We're destined not to know what this is all about until it gets revealed in various subpoenas," Rager said. "Then we'll know more about what's underneath all those rocks."
For instance, though the lawsuit refers to anonymous allegations of 11 research irregularities in Rao's lab, it does not explicitly list all of them. However, some of Rao's alleged misconduct mentioned includes use of improper data to apply for grants and an attempt to cover up evidence of wrongdoing.
The university investigation was supposed to have been completed by June, according to the lawsuit. But as of January, Rao had not been interviewed or received a report from the review team.
Rao came to Peoria from the University of Texas' Anderson Cancer Center in 2000 with a reputation as a superstar cancer researcher. By 2011, he had won almost $30 million in competitive research grants from the National Institute of Health during his career, more than any other brain researcher in the country. His $700,000 salary put him among the U of I system's top 10 earners.
Over the decade, he was a driving force behind the construction of UICOMP's $13 million Cancer Research Center, which opened in 2011.
Pam Adams can be reached at 686-3245 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @padamspam.