The Emory University Whistle Blower

Dec 24, 2012 - by Michael Volpe - 0 Comments

Emory University Medical School

Back in 1999, Dr. James Murtagh, a member of the faculty at the Emory University Medical School, had the temerity to cooperate with a National Institute of Health investigation of widespread grant fraud being perpetrated by his employer. Emory retaliated, ousting Dr. Murtagh and making his life as miserable as it can. 

 by Michael Volpe

Emory University in Atlanta is a relatively small university with a very prominent reputation. It’s often referred to, along with Duke and Davidson and a few others, as being part of the “Ivy League of the South.” Because of Emory’s superior academic qualifications, its graduates dominate the ranks of the employed of most of Atlanta’s media, courts, business, and political worlds. But under this veneer of respectability that Emory projects, a great deal has been and continues to be amiss in its Medical School, particularly its dealings with Grady Hospital, one of the largest public care facilities for the poor in the world.

Emory’s treatment of Medical School faculty member Dr. James Murtagh has opened up a Pandora’s Box of ills. Rather than deal with the many issues of fraud and conflict of interest uncovered over the last 13 years by the National Institute of Health and other government agencies, Emory has persisted in stonewalling instead of reforming.

When Dr. James Murtagh first began cooperating with investigators from the National Institute of Health in 1999, he never imagined that the consequences of that would still be playing out in an Atlanta courtroom more than 13 years later.

James Murtagh MD
James Murtagh MD

In 1999, Dr. Murtagh, an assistant professor at the Division of Pulmonary Diseases at Emory University Medical School, was approached by investigators from NIH looking into widespread grant fraud at Emory University Medical School in Atlanta. NIH badly wanted someone on the inside to help advance the investigation. Within Emory’s Medical School however, it was an open secret that 10s of millions of dollars were being swindled yearly in a series of brazenly corrupt acts.

In the early part of 1999, agents from NIH presented Dr. Murtagh with overwhelming evidence that grants awarded to professors at Emory University Medical Schoolroutinely had their funds misappropriated. NIH told Murtagh that its investigators considered Emory University the biggest offender of a growing problem of grant fraud.

They asked for Dr. Murtagh’s help in exposing this fraud. Murtagh agreed shortly thereafter and the consequence of this choice continues to significantly affect his life today. At the time of his initial agreement, Murtagh had practiced medicine for about 10 years with no marks against him.

Murtagh didn’t only tell NIH investigators about grant fraud but a whole web of corruption. For instance, he mentioned to them that Dr. Charles Nemeroff was being paid off to publish positive reviews of drugs. This would become the subject of an investigation nearly a decade later. Dr. Murtagh also reported on a lot of corruption in Emory’s handling of Grady Hospital.

 

An Unholy Alliance with Grady Hospital

Grady Hospital is a public hospital in Atlanta for the poor. It’s one of the biggest hospitals in the world. Emory University runs the hospital. In that, its medical staff conducts regular shifts at Grady Hospital, and its medical students are taught there. The relationship between Emory and Grady Hospital would become the subject of numerous investigations in the next decade.

As Dr. Murtagh stressed to NIH, understanding the relationship between Emory and Grady was central in understanding the larger corruption.

Murtagh noticed a series of conflicts of interest. For instance, many of the board members of Grady Hospital were also Emory University staff members. In fact, according to the contract between Grady and Emory, at least 51 percent of all Grady Hospital board members had to be from Emory University. Routinely, Emory University staff members would get jobs at Grady Hospital, and vice versa.

Meanwhile, the deal negotiated between Grady Hospital and Emory University stipulated that Emory University get paid about $50 million yearly to operate Grady Hospital. This appeared to be a good deal for Emory University and it seemed as though Emory was negotiating largely with itself, Murtagh explained to NIH investigators. Since Grady Hospital is a public hospital, that $50 million fee that was negotiated by Emory University would ultimately be paid by taxpayers.

The conflicts-of-interests didn’t stop there. Robert Brown was also an important member of the Grady Hospital Board. He was not one of those who also had direct ties to Emory University. Instead, Brown routinely used his position on the Grady Board to steer business to his architecture firm, RL Brown and Associates.  In 2002, for example, his company received a lucrative multi-million dollar contract for architectural work as part of a Grady Hospital expansion.

After years of this graft, Brown was finally forced from the board in 2009.

 

Emory Retaliates

Within a year of agreeing to cooperate with NIH investigators, Murtagh was the victim of a sham peer review. Medical peer review is a process by which members of each sub-specialty review cases from their peers, to determine what was done right and what was done wrong. Done correctly, it can serve as a means of analyzing cases and making improvements.

When corrupted, it serves as a means of punishing doctors. That’s what happened to Dr. Murtagh. In 2000, a medical peer review determined that Dr. Murtagh should be removed from his professor’s position at Emory University Medical School.

According to the findings of the peer review, Murtagh was removed for violating protocols in issues of do not resuscitate. There were several things wrong with the peer review. First, Emory professors were in no position to conduct the peer review. In a proper peer review, doctors in the same specialty are brought in from another facility with no connections to any of the parties.

In this case, Murtagh’s colleagues at Emory University Medical School conducted the peer review. Worse yet, the peer review was conducted in secret and without the presence of Murtagh. Because of this blatant violation of Murtagh’s due process rights, Emory, in an out-of-court settlement, paid Dr. Murtagh $1.6 million.The settlement was sealed, meaning neither Emory representatives nor Dr. Murtagh could speak publicly about it.

Having been fired from his job at Emory University Medical School, Dr. Murtagh found himself unemployable in Atlanta. It took him three years to land a new position as medical director of Sleep CorClinics in southeast Georgia. Treating patients with sleep disorders became his new specialty. Since 2010, he has been the medical director of Sleepcare Diagnostics in Cincinnati, Ohio.

If Emory University thought that terminating the services of Dr. Murtagh would make him go quietly away, this was a serious miscalculation. Being let go by Emory University only served to make himmore determined to become an activist against Emory University corruption.

 

Dr. Murtagh Fights Back

While still unemployed in 2002, for example, he befriended Joyce Harris. At the time, Harris was the highest ranking African-American female working in Grady Hospital. She was director of Human Resources. She’d noticed that powerful State Senator Charles Walker was using his position to steer an exorbitant amount of business to a temporary job placement company he owned.

As head of the Georgia Senate Budget Committee, Sen. Walker was in a position to control the purse strings at Grady Hospital. As such, he used that position to demand that Grady Hospital hire as many as 50 temps daily, when only three or four were necessary. That’s what a 137-count indictment against Walker said. This indictment was first filed against Walker in 2004.

Walker would be convicted on all counts and Harris was the star witness against him.

By 2005, Murtaghhad befriended Kevin Kuritzky, a medical student who was kicked out of school 41 days prior to his being scheduled to graduate. Emory claimed that a couple of tardies in his freshman year were enough to expel him.

The reason the two became friends was thatKuritzky’s expulsion happened about a year after he agreed to cooperate with a whole new investigation of conditions at Grady by the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Studies (a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).

Ultimately, that investigation would conclude, “The conditions at Grady Hospital present a clear and present danger to the health and safety of the patients.”

In 2007, Grady Hospital was facing a budget crisis. By November of 2007, the hospital only had enough cash on hand to survive for a few weeks and projected a $55 million shortfall. It was the most recent budget shortfall. Previous shortfalls were fixed with infusion of taxpayer dollars to save and prop up the hospital.

In this case, the governing board was also replaced with a non-profit board. This move was deemed necessary to insure that this would never happen again.  During the course of negotiations, State Senator David Shafer successfully argued that the current crisis warranted that Murtagh’s case be unsealed and placed on the public record. Writing on his blog in 2007, Shafer explained why he thought it was important to unseal the case.“Sealed settlements and confidentiality agreements are common in litigation involving private businesses and individuals.  They are less common when government entities or public institutions are involved.  In fact, it is my view that they violate public policy on their face.  For this very reason, the Attorney General will not enter into a sealed settlement on behalf of the state or any state agency.” 

In 2007, the details of the settlement between Murtagh and Emory were first revealed to the public. The legal wrangling was only just beginning. The case wound up in the courtroom of Atlanta Superior Court Judge Wendy Shoob and it would ping-pong around there for the next five years.

Judge Shoob immediately ruled that even though the $1.6 million settlement Emory had paid Murtagh was unsealed, Murtagh was still prohibited from speaking about it. She made no such restrictions of Emory University. As a result, Emory University representatives would periodically be quoted in Atlanta media on occasion.

For instance, in response to an October 5, 2007Atlanta Journal Constitution editorial critical of Emory’s misuse of government funding, Emory’s two general counsels, Kent Alexander and Tim Jefferson,wrote a letter to the editor in response to the editorial:

            The AJC's Oct. 5 editorial “Come clean on lawsuit” resurrects (and misstates) old charges of conspiring to misuse government funds, charges the government reviewed seven years ago and declined to pursue. This has the devastating effect of casting public suspicion on two entities – Grady Memorial Hospital and Emory University – that are working together in an increasingly challenging environment to meet the health needs of the most vulnerable members of our society.

            The editorial surprisingly calls on Emory and Grady to open the sealed settlement and court records in a case involving Dr. James Murtagh. For the record, Emory and Grady did not move to seal the record; Murtagh did. Emory had already supported unsealing the proceedings – the complete, entire record – as had Grady. We simply awaited the doctor and court's approval. Judge Wendy Shoob has since unsealed the record, which is now of course fully open to the public. The real victim in all of this is Grady, the largest public health hospital in the Southeast. Grady is struggling to survive while misinformation circulates that, unintentionally or intentionally, diverts attention from the real issues.

The letter to the editor was disingenuous. It was Emory, not Dr. Murtagh, that requested that Emory’s $1.6 million settlement be sealed. In effect, Emory had bought Dr. Murtagh’s silence by sealing the settlement. Emory’s legal team knew that Dr. Murtagh was still prohibited by Judge Shoob from discussing the settlement; it used the tactic of saying it was Dr. Murtagh who wanted the settlement sealed as a smoke screen.

Judge Shoob’s peculiar ruling prohibiting Dr. Murtagh from going public about his settlement with Emory led to its own five-year odyssey. That odyssey may be soon concluding, but Emory University was still the subject of one more investigation.

In 2008, U.S. Senator Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, led an investigation of Emory University as part of his duties on the Senate Finance Committee into then Emory University’s Psychiatry Department chair, Charles Nemeroff. Grassley’s investigation concluded that Nemeroff routinely accepted speaking fees and other inappropriate financial rewards from drug companies and then proceed to write favorable reviews of numerous drugs produced by these drug companies.

Furthermore, Sen. Grassley’s committee also concluded that Nemeroff failed to report in excess of $1 million in earned income from these fees. Dr. Nemeroff was removed from Emory University but was hired by the University of Miami in Florida after the scandal broke.

Meanwhile, Dr. Murtagh’s case was finding its way routinely into the courtroom of Judge Shoob. That’s because Emory University routinely claimed that Murtagh had violated the agreement and was speaking about his case. Often Emory would make this charge even though itsown people were being quoted speaking about the case in the press. Judge Shoob would routinely issue contempt of court orders against Murtagh at thesehearings and order him to pay court costs involved.

That’s when Jim Murtagh met up with Michael McCray. McCray was also involved in a civil case that was in front of Judge Shoob. McCray, speaking with Crime Magazine, said he witnessed enormous corruption in his own case. McCray said he was acting as an advocate for the proprietors of the Hotel Winecoff, which is also in Atlanta.

The proprietors of the Hotel Winecoff were claiming a case of mortgage fraud against a bank called Interbank. Judge Shoob took this case even though her husband was a partner in the Atlanta law firm, Paul Hastings, PLLC, that was representing Interbank.

Judge Shoob would eventually rule that there was no mortgage fraud. (That ruling would eventually bring her to the attention of the U.S. Justice Department. According to a U.S. Department of Justice complaint, acquired by Crime Magazine, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is currently investigating a number of complaints against her related to rulings she made in the Hotel Winecoff case.)

 

A Slap Down for Judge Shoob

After five years of getting the short end from Judge Shoob, legal matters finally turned around for Dr. Murtagh when his legal team won what it called a “monumental victory” on July 26, 2012.  That’s when a Georgia Court of Appeals in Atlanta ordered Judge Shoob to vacate all the contempt of court citations she had issued against Murtagh.  Over the previous five years, Judge Shoob had cited Murtagh for contempt a number of times for publicly discussing his settlement with Emory University and had even awarded financial damages to Emory University as a result. The Georgia Court of Appeals ruling ended all that. The court went even further and scolded Judge Shoob for not properly applying contempt. This scolding was viewed by Murtagh’s attorneys as a long overdue and deserved slap down of Judge Shoob. 

Mark Spix, Murtagh’s lead attorney, told investigative reporter Tom Nugent that the behavior of Judge Shoob in Murtagh’s case has led to some of the worst corruption in the area of arbitration.

"Jim Murtagh has spent many years in the wilderness," says Spix, who crafted the elegantly simple legal argument that prevailed in the Georgia Appeals Court last July. "He was essentially blacklisted by the university for his whistle blowing, and he soon discovered that when potential employers called Emory for references, they were either ignored for months a time . . . or they were told things that prevented Dr. Murtagh from working as a hospital doctor.

 "I really don't know how he managed to hang on through so many legal defeats and through so many long stints of unemployment.  But he did – and now, at long last, he has gained a toehold on justice.  In my opinion, his legal victory last July is going to help protect hospital patients, taxpayers and jobs in the future.This is a huge victory for hospital patients everywhere."

Crime Magazine emailed a number of people in Emory University’s Media Relations Department but no one responded with a statement about any part of this story.

It seems the only way for Murtagh to lose now is for the public to ignore all this even though he’s brought it to light. If Judge Shoob were to rule strictly according to the law, Murtagh’s lawyer, Mark Spix, told Crime Magazine, she would finally have to end Emory’s legal retaliation against Murtagh.

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