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Moffitt Cancer Center is being sued by its former director who says he was forced to resign over his alleged ties to China.
Dr. Thomas Sellers says Moffitt’s own investigation showed that his signature was forged on an application to a Chinese program called Thousand Talents, according to the lawsuit.
Sellers, along with four researchers and the cancer center’s CEO, Dr. Alan List, resigned last year after the investigation found they failed to disclose their participation in the program that paid them each tens of thousands of dollars.
“There was recognition by Moffitt that Dr. Sellers was not involved and did nothing inappropriate but by then they were most concerned about their reputation and their continued relationship with the” National Institutes of Health, said Sellers’ attorney Brandon Scheele.
Moffitt began investigating its researchers’ ties to the Chinese program after the NIH warned of collaborations that could lead to the theft of intellectual property. The NIH provides billions of federal dollars in research funding to universities and institutes like Moffitt.
“Moffitt was concerned if they did not fire every single employee who even had the appearance of being involved in the Thousand Talents Program, they would lose their standing with the National Institutes of Health,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says Sellers was set up by Moffitt researcher Sheng Wei, who was being paid by China for each scientist he recruited into the program. Thousand Talents was designed to bring high-level scientists from the United States into collaborations with researchers in China.
“The application was in Chinese and was never seen or read by Sellers,” the lawsuit says. “He only learned of the existence of the contract when it was brought to his attention by Moffitt.”
In response to the lawsuit, Moffitt spokesman Mark Hendrickson said in a statement that the cancer center stands behind its findings from the investigation of Sellers and will vigorously defend any legal action filed against it.
Moffitt’s investigation found that Sellers’ participation in the Thousand Talents program included an agreement to work in China for two months a year for three years. The agreement included a monthly payment of $7,100. The investigation also found that Sellers opened a Chinese bank account in November 2018 and that Sellers stated that $35,000 was deposited into the account with another $35,000 to be deposited at a later date. Moffitt reported that Sellers disclosed his participation in the Thousand Talents program in August 2019 after attending a Moffitt seminar on foreign influence in U.S. academic activities.
In his lawsuit, Sellers says he did not perform any research for China, nor did he accept any money from the country.
Scheele, Sellers’ attorney, said the bank account was opened when Sellers was in China at Moffitt’s request but he did not open it.
“He was on a trip to give a presentation on some cancer research breakthroughs and it was during that trip that Sheng Wei did some more of these unscrupulous things,” Scheele said. “Dr. Sellers never accepted any money, period.”
Moffitt has had a relationship with the Tianjin Cancer Center in China for 12 years and would encourage its employees to participate in the collaboration, the lawsuit states.
Moffitt recovered videos in which five of the six doctors confirmed their applications to the Thousand Talents program. Sellers’ video was the only one missing.
In his lawsuit, Sellers said the video would show that he never agreed to participate in the program.
“By the time Sellers was able to give his side of the story, he had already been convicted by Moffitt in the press and the damage to his reputation had been done,” the lawsuit states.
Sellers is suing Moffitt for two counts of defamation and one count of interfering with a business relationship. He is seeking damages on each count to recover lost wages, loss of ability to earn a living, mental anguish, personal humiliation, damage to reputation and damage to continue or develop business relationships. The actual amount tied to those damages will be decided at a trial.
The damage to Sellers’ reputation has left him nearly unemployable because he can’t support his research with NIH funding, the lawsuit states.
“All he wants is for Moffitt to apologize and issue a statement that absolves Dr. Sellers of any wrongdoing,” Scheele said. “The goal of this lawsuit is to clear his name.”
In addition, Sellers is suing the Moffitt researcher Sheng Wei for fraud and intentional infliction of emotional distress.