The Angelides Affair

A dispute over research fraud has split the faculty at Baylor College of Medicine, and could jeopardize the way universities police scientific misconduct

A decade ago, at the dawn of a new era of science, Kimon J. Angelides joined the faculty at Baylor College of Medicine as part of an ambitious effort to discover novel methods to combat muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis.

Angelides seemed perfectly suited for a newly created Baylor department, one that was established to explore microscopic pathways into cells as a way to deliver drugs to fight the devastating neurological diseases that afflict more than a half-million Americans. Familiar with the latest techniques for probing genes, Angelides was known as a dynamic scientist and charming personality, capable of giving dazzling lectures punctuated with myriad references to journal articles and research discoveries. But as his years passed at Baylor, questions began to arise about whether everything the glib neuroscientist said was the truth.

First, one of his superiors accused Angelides of making false statements in documents he turned in to the National Institutes of Health when applying for federal grants. During his nine years at Baylor, Angelides brought in at least $2.6 million in grants from the NIH and such private organizations as the National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the group for which Jerry Lewis raises money.

The discovery of the false statements led to an extensive Baylor investigation of Angelides's research that concluded that he had published false and fabricated results in five articles in scientific journals. Baylor also found that Angelides had repeatedly falsified data in documents for hundreds of thousands of dollars in NIH grants.

In March 1995 Baylor fired Angelides, forcing the $115,000-a-year tenured professor out of a laboratory he had operated since 1986. It is believed to be the first time Baylor has taken such action, which rarely occurs at any U.S. scientific institution.

Then, last December, the U S. Attorney's Office in Houston opened the preliminary phase of a criminal investigation to determine if Angelides should be indicted for making false statements to the federal government regarding NIH grants.

David H. Peck, the assistant U.S. attorney handling the case, has declined to comment on his criminal inquiry. His office is expected to make a decision in the upcoming weeks on what action -- if any -- it will take on the Angelides matter. In the last decade, only one scientist nationally has been convicted of a criminal charge related to scientific misconduct. That case involved a psychologist who faked the results of drug studies of mentally disabled children in Michigan.

Officials at Baylor won't discuss the Angelides case. They referred calls to their attorneys, A. John Harper II and Gerald G. Pecht, both of the Fulbright & Jaworski firm. The attorneys also declined to comment, saying their legal papers speak for the college.

Rusty Hardin, Angelides's criminal attorney, says he is convinced his client didn't commit a criminal offense. "There is no issue some wrong data was submitted; the question is did he know it was wrong and false when he submitted it? I'm satisfied he did not," says Hardin.

Angelides isn't talking to the press these days. But through his attorneys, he denies engaging in any impropriety. After getting the boot from Baylor, Angelides moved to England, where he is now a professor at a small institution, the University of Durham. He left behind at his Houston home his wife, Dr. Lefki Karaviti, a pediatrician at Texas Children's Hospital, giving him an intercontinental marriage. Angelides took their two young children with him to England, reportedly because child care is cheaper there.

Because of Baylor's allegations, Angelides's U.S. research career may be finished. To the scientific community, lying about research results is considered heresy, the most vile offense a researcher can commit. It also can represent an abuse of taxpayer funds, one that has attracted increasing scrutiny in recent years as Congress has expressed strong displeasure at the scientific establishment's inability to police its wrongdoers. So Angelides followed the route of a number of other accused researchers, seeking scientific asylum in a laboratory abroad.

But Angelides didn't fly off to the United Kingdom quietly. In August 1995 he sued Baylor, its top officials and his accusers -- charging 16 offenses, including wrongful termination, breach of contract, defamation and blacklisting. His lawsuit in Harris County's 215th District Court is more than a scientist's effort to settle his grievances. It is an example of the latest trend in scientific misconduct cases -- sullied researchers are exercising their due process rights by attacking their accusers in a full-on legal battle.

The Angelides case has become the focus now of a high-stakes legal fight on how universities and the NIH handle investigations of potentially bogus federally funded research. Baylor, the NIH and the nation's academic institutions see Angelides's lawsuit as undermining a partnership that the federal government and universities have developed in the last decade to address allegations of research misconduct -- which include fabricated data, false academic credentials and plagiarism.

This investigative partnership has been difficult to develop. During the last decade, the NIH has seen its watchdog efforts evolve as the scientific establishment has been forced to identify fakes while giving them due process rights. Along the way, some powerful scientists fought efforts to create a formal mechanism to expose research fraud. They saw science as "self-correcting," insisting the wayward scientist and his or her fabricated articles would be relegated to obscurity. But a number of high-profile cases of wholesale fabrications -- including one involving nearly 50 published articles of bogus research by a scientist at the University of California at San Diego -- shattered that theory.

When a scientist is accused of cheating, a nasty bout of finger-pointing and blame- shifting often ensues. The professional performance of accusers is scrutinized, personal lives are explored and potentially embarrassing skeletons are pulled from the closet. No one is immune to these tactics. The Angelides case is no different.

The formal charges of scientific misconduct were brought against Angelides in 1992 by Dr. Arthur M. "Buzz" Brown, who was chairman of Baylor's department of physiology and Angelides's boss at the time. Brown, who has since left Baylor to direct a research institution in Cleveland, Ohio, won't discuss the Angelides case. As the charges were being made, two junior scientists in Angelides's lab -- Mark Lewallen and Barbara Wible -- provided supporting testimony.

In his lawsuit against Baylor, Angelides's civil attorney, James V. Pianelli, accuses Brown, Lewallen and Wible of conspiring against his client, each for his or her own reasons of "bias and malice." Lewallen "harbored deep animosity" toward Angelides, his former supervisor, blaming Angelides for his failure to complete a doctoral program at Baylor, the lawsuit claims. In deposition testimony for the case, Pianelli contends Wible was a scorned former lover of Angelides who turned on him after Angelides married another woman, his current wife. (Angelides's previous wife, with whom he had two sons, is an administrative assistant at Rice University.) Through their attorneys, Wible and Lewallen declined to comment for this story.

Baylor hasn't bought this line of reasoning; it conducted an additional probe that cleared Wible and Lewallen of blame. But some supporters of Angelides have, showing the deep split the case has created in the college's faculty. Jeffrey Rosen, a prominent member of Baylor's cell biology department, the college's largest research division, wrote a letter in early 1995 to top officials, saying he was "horrified" at the treatment of Angelides.

"The termination undermined the faith of the faculty and the administration at Baylor and seriously jeopardized the concept of collegiality," Rosen is quoted in a deposition as having written. But Baylor officials such as Dr. Robert R. Rich, a vice president and dean of research, have defended the college's probe as fair and appropriate. The evidence, Rich has testified in a deposition, overwhelmingly supported the conclusion that Angelides was "guilty of scientific misconduct."

One common thread in many cases of scientific misconduct is that the accused cheater had previously gotten into trouble but was allowed to quietly move on to another institution. Indeed, prior to his arrival at Baylor, Angelides's veracity had been questioned at two universities.

In 1980, in the early days of his career, Angelides was accused at one of Canada's most prestigious institutions of fabricating his academic record and claiming publication of scientific articles that hadn't been printed. And his scientific claims also raised questions four years later at the University of Florida, where he worked before joining Baylor. But there were no formal charges against Angelides at either of those institutions, and he has denied any improprieties.

The NIH now requires universities receiving federal funds to have procedures for investigating allegations of scientific misconduct. A university screens complaints to make sure they aren't spurious attacks, sets up a committee of its experts to review worthy allegations and makes decisions about any impropriety. Universities also are to ensure that anyone blowing the whistle on a colleague isn't subjected to retaliation, which can easily occur because the whistleblower is often a junior scientist who is precariously vulnerable.

Then a university's report and actions are reviewed by a special agency associated with the NIH, the Office of Research Integrity, which makes the decision on punishment for an offending researcher. The most serious NIH sanction is a cutoff in grants. Last year, ORI ruled that 17 researchers nationally had committed research misconduct.

This entire process is being thrown into question now by Angelides's civil lawsuit, federal and university officials say. Angelides filed his lawsuit in state court, but Baylor and the federal government maintain that it should be in federal court. The matter of where the lawsuit is to be heard seems like an arcane legal point of little importance. But in this case, the court with jurisdiction makes a big difference.

The reason is that if accused scientists can sue in state court, universities and federal authorities fear no one would want to participate in misconduct reviews. "It is very important for us to protect institutions and their officials that carry out scientific misconduct investigations," said Chris B. Pascal, the acting director of the Office of Research Integrity in suburban Maryland outside Washington, D.C. "If an institution and its committees of scientists are held liable for reporting to ORI, who would write a report and put their name on it? They wouldn't do it anymore."

At the Association of American Medical Colleges -- the trade group for 400 medical schools and 90 professional societies nationally -- there is equal concern. "Universities are fearful that they and their faculty who serve on committees will be at risk for being endlessly tied up in litigation," said Joseph A. Keyes Jr., the association's general counsel.

For these reasons, the NIH, the association and Baylor maintain those who ferret out scientific misconduct should be immune from civil lawsuits in state courts. "The conflicting state and federal requirements give rise to an absolute privilege of [Baylor and its scientists] from liability for reporting scientific misconduct, since private parties carrying out federally mandated duties should not be put in an untenable position between such requirements," wrote John P. Schnitker, an assistant U.S. Attorney General in Washington, in his brief supporting Baylor.

And if there is to be a trial of Angelides's suit, Baylor and its allies argue, it should be held in federal court. At one point, Baylor had the case removed to federal court in Houston. But then a ruling by U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt early last year sent it back to state court. Angelides's attorney Pianelli says that his client should be able to pursue his litigation at the state level, arguing Baylor shouldn't be immune for harming his client.

Those points are now being argued in the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. Attorneys for both Angelides and Baylor have filed legal briefs with the appellate court. Baylor is supported by friend-of-the-court briefs by the federal government and the Association of American Medical Colleges. Oral arguments are expected in the next few months.

Meanwhile, Angelides's lawsuit has moved forward -- albeit at a slower pace, because of the federal criminal inquiry -- toward a state court trial. Various parties are investigating Angelides's past. And Angelides is spending his second winter on the cold northeast coast of England.

Originally from Sacramento, California, Angelides is a first generation Greek-American. His father is a retired mechanical engineer, his mother a former teacher's aide. Kim, as he is known, got his doctorate in chemistry in 1977 at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Afterward, the NIH funded a fellowship -- a combination learning and research position -- for him at Cornell University in New York.

In the effort to fight neurological disease, Angelides held a coveted position on the 12-member advisory committee that recommends which promising young scientists should be awarded research grants by the New York-based National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Angelides's lab had received grants of $30,000 to $65,000 a year from the society in the past.

Kim's younger brother, Philip Angelides, has been even more successful. Philip, 43, is a millionaire housing developer in the Sacramento region, a big fundraiser for Bill Clinton and a Democratic Party heavyweight with political ambitions. While attending Harvard, Philip ran in 1973 for a seat on the Sacramento City Council. He lost that year, but has continued his ascendancy in Democratic politics.

In 1992, Philip chaired the California Democratic Party. His work is widely seen as helping Clinton carry the state in 1992. In 1994, Angelides was narrowly defeated in a run for treasurer of California. For the last two years, Philip has hosted big-dollar fundraisers for Clinton at his Sacramento home when the president visited during the summers. And Philip hobnobs with some of the most powerful Democratic members of Congress.

Kim is known to brag about his brother's political successes. And despite Kim's own accomplishments, there are hints of a sibling rivalry. The suggestions arose in 1980 -- when Kim falsely claimed that he went to Harvard.

At the time, Kim was at McGill University in Montreal. It was his first research appointment after years of scientific training. This is a key period for a young researcher, when he must move beyond the discoveries of his doctoral thesis. New findings must be published in scientific journals, and the more prestigious the journal the better. It truly is a publish-or-perish proposition.

Publications of articles in scientific journals are needed to get funds to operate a laboratory. A typical lab needs about $250,000 a year to cover expenses, salaries and overhead. The most ambitious researchers can bring more to a university, directing multiple laboratory projects at the same time. Much of a researcher's success in this milieu involves his or her grantsmanship: the ability to fashion a grant application so it will be funded.

In 1980, Rose M. Johnstone was chairwoman of McGill's biochemistry department, where Angelides was then conducting research. Something about Angelides's academic record on his curriculum vitae caught her eye. "It was a fluke," recalls Johnstone, now a professor emeritus. Angelides had said on the CV that he had earned an undergraduate degree from Harvard in Slavic languages in 1974. "When I called Harvard, they denied he was a graduate," says Johnstone. "But they told me his brother was."

Angelides also wrote on the CV that he had received an undergraduate degree in 1973 from Lawrence University, a small institution in Appleton, Wisconsin. He did get that degree.

The false entry on Angelides's CV prompted Johnstone to delve more deeply into his record. At the time, she didn't know a lot about him, because he had come to McGill just before she was appointed biochemistry chairwoman. While people commonly use resumes for jobs, a scientist's CV has extra meaning. It is a badge of honor. A CV listing publications of original research articles in major journals opens doors for academic jobs, appointments to prestigious professional societies and grant funding.

Johnstone found Angelides had padded his CV with five articles that hadn't been published -- including one purportedly published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the journal of the nation's most august professional society. When confronted about the unpublished articles, Johnstone says, Angelides called it "a terrible mistake."

"He said he had the manuscripts in hand," Johnstone recalls. "I said, that means nothing. I want letters from the publishers showing they were printed."

Because of the faked CV, Johnstone says, she asked for and received Angelides's resignation from the university. It was late in 1980 in the middle of the school year, she says, so she let him stay until July 1981.

"Since he was young," she says, "I agreed to give him six months" while he looked for a job elsewhere. Johnstone still recalls one of his parting comments: "He said I was making a terrible mistake; that he had brought notoriety to our department. I told him that was one thing we didn't need."

Asked these days about the McGill CV, Angelides denies through his attorneys that he did anything wrong. "The matters of McGill University were thoroughly investigated and there was a finding that Dr. Angelides did not commit misconduct during an initial inquiry," Pianelli wrote in a letter to Nature, a London-based scientific journal that first aired Johnstone's allegation. Calling the CV problems "slanderous accusations," Pianelli also wrote that they are "without merit" and are "brought for a vindictive purpose."

Despite his Canadian experience, Angelides obtained a research position at the University of Florida's College of Medicine. He became an assistant professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at the Gainesville campus. There, according to one Florida scientist, he is remembered for "his active and probing mind," his charm and his charisma. "He could dazzle you with an enormous amount of research. His capacity to get experimental results was phenomenal. He was wonderfully aware of the literature," recalls the scientist, who only agreed to speak for this story anonymously.

But there was unease about Angelides's research at Florida, too. "Some faculty had concerns about how justified his conclusions were," the scientist says. "Senior faculty raised eyebrows that his work wasn't well replicated." In April 1984, the concern came to a head after Angelides delivered a lecture at a departmental seminar following his return from a sabbatical in Japan. The seminar was like a scientific bathing beauty contest; a time to show your latest stuff before it is published. After the lecture, the Florida scientist recalls, the unease about Angelides's research turned to open discussion: "We went, 'Woof!' " the scientist says. "It was hard to believe that he had done all that in a short period of time. A bunch of people felt that way."

Not long after the lecture that raised eyebrows, Angelides moved to the school's neurosciences department. Then, after a few months, he suddenly announced he was leaving Florida for Baylor, where he was offered a much-coveted professorship with tenure.

"After learning what happened at Baylor, a number of us felt we had dodged the bullet," the Florida scientist says.

Arriving at Baylor in 1986, Angelides joined a group of researchers focusing on nerve cells. It was a particularly dynamic time for such scientists. In the preceding years, revolutionary new genetic research tools had been discovered that permitted scientists to manipulate DNA like never before. Virtually overnight, the field of molecular biology was created -- with scientists able to alter DNA to produce laboratory-engineered proteins, the materials that are the building blocks of life. The proteins can be modified, tagged with radioactive material to chart their course during experiments, or fashioned to take certain paths into cells.

Using those techniques, Angelides was working to determine how nerve cells communicate, what substances they use to send messages and the routes the chemicals take between cells. One common route is through sodium ion channels -- in essence, the salt paths into the body's cells. By studying the recently discovered cellular pathways and their receptor entrances on the cell surface, the scientists hoped to learn ways to treat multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy and other diseases where the nerve and muscular actions go awry.

While neither Baylor nor Angelides will say which articles contain the fabricated research, the names of the journals in which the articles appear were revealed during a state court hearing on the Baylor lawsuit in December. They are in esoteric publications -- Brain Research, Glia, the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences and the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. The fifth article, according to a deposition given by one of Angelides's superiors at Baylor, was in the Proceedings of the American Academy of Sciences. When Angelides was accused of padding his CV in Canada, one of the unpublished articles was to have been in this same journal. By scrutinizing Angelides's record of publications, one can see the articles Baylor disputes were published from 1989 to 1991 and involved experiments with engineered proteins, called monoclonal antibodies.

The court hearing where the articles were revealed was called before Judge Dwight Jefferson because of the conflict that the federal criminal inquiry posed to Angelides's suit against Baylor. Angelides had flown to Houston from England for a deposition, where he was to be questioned by Baylor attorneys. But a workday before the face-off, assistant U.S. attorney Peck contacted Angelides's attorney Pianelli and told him of the criminal inquiry.

Because anything Angelides said in the deposition in the civil case could be used against him in a criminal prosecution, Angelides declined to testify at the December 11 hearing, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. "He was more than willing to submit to a deposition," says Rusty Hardin, who was hastily brought into the case because of the criminal aspect. But, Hardin adds, "It would be insane to allow anyone to be subjected to what Baylor wanted to do."

Just to be sure, the judge had Angelides take the stand and invoke the Fifth Amendment under questioning by Pecht about two NIH grants and the articles in the journals. With the criminal inquiry pending, the judge then postponed the trial until at least August. All discovery in the lawsuit has been put on hold until a decision is made on the criminal probe.

As the attorneys argue from Houston to New Orleans, the NIH's Office of Research Integrity has been conducting its probe of Angelides and the Baylor allegations. ORI, as it is known in the scientific community, is to investigate and make a decision in a timely manner. But there has been a long delay in its review of the Angelides case. Baylor had submitted its report shortly after Angelides was fired in March 1995, but ORI didn't appear to be aggressively pursuing its review until late 1996, when the case had drawn the attention of the scientific press.

Last July, Pianelli said that ORI "was holding its investigation in abeyance" until after the civil trial on Angelides's lawsuit against Baylor, which then was scheduled for February 1997. ORI's Pascal denies there was any agreement to delay his agency's decision until after the civil trial. ORI is known for long delays before its reports are done, but delaying one for a state court civil trial would be unprecedented. It would relegate the government's fraud-snooping agency to a second-class position; and it would enrage Baylor, where officials increasingly are concerned about ORI's failure to issue a decision. Baylor clearly wants a decision from ORI that would buttress its defense in the civil lawsuit.

By last November, ORI's investigation was in full swing. That proceeding has the flavor of a quasi-legal scientific court of inquiry. Investigators have visited Baylor, and some key witnesses were summoned to Maryland for questioning, while the federal prosecutor in Houston listened in via a phone hook-up.

Hardin says it's rather "curious that all of a sudden a day before Angelides gives a deposition that an assistant U.S. attorney calls," announcing he is conducting a criminal investigation. Angelides's attorneys have blamed Baylor for this latest twist in an already convoluted trek through the legal system. Baylor denies any involvement in trying to spur a criminal case. Pascal says the U.S. Department of Justice receives all of ORI's misconduct reviews, but he acknowledges its prosecutors seldom get involved.

As a decision nears in the federal probes, scientists who were co-authors with Angelides on the disputed research await anxiously. Most of the co-authors are scientists at Yale, including Dr. Stephen G. Waxman, who is chief of neurology at the prestigious medical school. Angelides had given them special antibodies in years past to use in experiments, with the Baylor and Yale researchers then sharing credit for the published articles. Now a statement from Yale indicates the scientists there feel duped.

When Yale first learned in 1993 that there were potential problems with the Baylor researcher, Waxman and his colleagues stopped using antibodies from Angelides, says Dr. Lawrence S. Cohen, a special advisor to Yale's medical school dean. Then Yale scientists sought details from Baylor to verify the characteristics of the antibodies, Cohen says, but they never got them. Like most of the people touched by the Angelides affair, Waxman and his colleagues have declined to comment.

(Rex Dalton is a San Diego journalist who specializes in medical and scientific misconduct issues. He has previously written on the Angelides case for the British publication Nature.)

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