Committing the Truth

After years of retaliation because she was a whistleblower, a leading Alzheimer's researcher can vouch for how poorly Arizona law protects university employees who report waste or fraud

"When I saw the number of lobbyists working to kill it at the end there, I knew I was on the right track," said state Senator David Petersen (R-Mesa), one of the bill's sponsors.

Devine called that late lobbying effort by state officials "a wall of shameless bluffs" that were "quite a bit cruder than the disinformation campaigns you see at the federal level."

The lobbyist for the state attorney general's office, Michael Haener, dismissed Devine's characterization of opposition to the bill.

Hadley Hooper
Hadley Hooper

"There's no question we'd like to push those two overriding goals: To find corruption and to get rid of it," he said. "We just felt that, for several different reasons, this was not the best way to achieve those goals."

Greg Fahey, who testified against the bill for the universities, didn't return calls from New Times. Peter Likins, president of the University of Arizona, declined to comment on the Kay case.

"There is a great deal that I would like to say in response to your inquiry," Likins said in an e-mail. "[However, I] must remain silent as long as the case is pending."

Likins did not respond to the request for comment on the university's stance on whistleblower legislation.

Devine said Arizona will not see genuine protection for genuine whistleblowers "if discussion of this issue remains a dusty backroom measure in Arizona."

"But in every case nationally, once the public sees the issues, the vote has been unanimously in favor of this type of reform," Devine said.

Petersen and legislators plan to reintroduce the Arizona Whistleblower Protection Act next session.

"This isn't about opening the doors for false complaints," Devine said. "It's about making sure that disclosures of scandals will lead to corrective action rather than cover-up. It's about openness and fairness and accountability in government."

"I do believe the acrimonious and mean allegations of scientific misconduct against Marguerite Kay are false to the point to be grotesque and ridiculous. . . . I am dismayed by what is happening at the University of Arizona because these events will discredit, not Prof. Kay, but the whole body of the University." -- Dr. Walter Pierpaoli, director of research, Jean Choay Institute for Biomedical Research, Riva San Vitale, Switzerland.

Marguerite Kay is calling from somewhere in the mountains somewhere in the western United States. She's being ludicrously vague about her whereabouts, she says, to avoid the harassing calls like the ones she receives at her home in Tucson. She says she needed some time away from Tucson to prepare for the next round of university hearings against her.

Kay has been accused of many things in her career. Particularly, being brash, arrogant, imperious and monomaniacal. In other words, she's like many top scientists.

Never in her long career, though, had she been charged with being dishonest.

Kay is, or was, the prestigious Regents Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the College of Medicine at the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center. The university fired her, but a Superior Court judge ruled in late 1999 that the university's process was "arbitrary and capricious." She was reinstated on February 4, then dismissed again the same day and banned from campus. She is now facing an investigation related to charges that were previously invalidated.

At least now she knows what the charges are. For two years, her supervisors ignored more than a dozen requests by her, her attorney, the American Association of University Professors and state legislators to receive a statement of the original charges.

To date, the accusations range from manipulating research data to storing and mishandling "polio J virus" and "bovine polio virus," two organisms that don't exist.

For one of the charges to be true, she would have had to dig up corpses to retrieve samples of brain tissue.

"At least it's bizarre enough to make it funny," Kay says. "If you can't maintain your sense of humor about it, you would go crazy."

What isn't the least bit funny, though, are the wider implications of the Kay case. If the charges against her have been trumped up, as more than a dozen of the world's top researchers attest, and the investigation and findings against her were grossly mishandled, as the courts and several legal scholars attest, then the University of Arizona has allowed retaliatory office politics to cripple landmark scientific research -- in this case, the diagnosis and treatment of a disease that affects more than four million Americans: Alzheimer's.

In an article last year in the magazine Science, Michael Cusanovich, then-vice president for research, who coordinated the investigation of Kay, defended the university. He said a written complaint by one of Kay's former technicians prompted the inquiry, which was conducted by independent panels selected by the faculty in accordance with UofA rules. Cusanovich said all the allegations made by Kay and her supporters were unfounded.

Likins, the university's president, also has vehemently defended the investigation, review procedures and decisions regarding Kay. In response to a scathing letter by Pierpaoli of the Swiss research institute, Likins wrote:

"I have been surprised to find that scientists who have earned their reputations through scrupulous consideration of the full facts are prepared to pass judgement in this matter without seeing all the evidence that has informed our faculty panels."

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