TAMPA — For years, Dr. Alan List and Dr. Sheng Wei worked closely at Moffitt Cancer Center to find cures and build bridges. Their accomplishments included a new therapy to treat a class of cancers affecting the bone marrow and blood, and a 12-year partnership with a top cancer hospital in Wei’s native China.
“As a team, we just click,” List, the Moffitt CEO, told an in-house publication in 2018. “Dr. Wei and I complement each other in ways that are hard to put into words.”
Now, according to a report obtained Saturday by the Tampa Bay Times, their collaboration — and their strong links to China — are at the center of a flap that recently cost them their jobs, put Moffitt’s reputation at risk and ignited an investigation by the Florida Legislature.
The report says List was recruited by Wei to join the Thousand Talents Program, created by China to boost the country’s competitiveness by bringing top Chinese researchers and entrepreneurs back home from overseas while also attracting foreign experts. It said Wei helped List and other Moffitt employees set up personal bank accounts in China to receive tens of thousands of dollars in payments from Thousand Talents.
The program has been criticized by many in the U.S. government as a way for China to improperly access "U.S. technology, intellectual property and know-how.”
The report said List, Wei and four other Moffitt employees who were forced to resign last month failed to disclose their involvement in Thousand Talents, despite repeated warnings to do so from the government and officials inside Moffitt who are in charge of seeing that center complies with rules and regulations. They also violated Moffitt policy by pledging to spend as much as two months a year on work for Thousand Talents, according to the report.
In addition to List and Wei, Moffitt’s board of directors called for the resignations or terminations of Thomas Sellers, a vice president and director at Moffitt, and three researchers: Daniel Sullivan, Howard McLeod and Pearlie K. Epling-Burnette.
The Times attempted to contact the Moffitt employees multiple times over the course of several weeks seeking comment. The outreach included letters, emails, phone calls and visits to the homes of List and Sellers. They did not respond.
The report, which details a months-long internal investigation by Moffitt, was released Friday to the Florida House’s Select Committee on the Integrity of Research Institutions, chaired by Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor.
From emails and interviews, it recounts conversations between List and other researchers and lays out how Wei personally recruited List, then the three researchers. Wei pointed to the CEO’s involvement in persuading the others to join. The six employees accepted cash honorariums, paid travel and other pay not previously disclosed to Moffitt, the report said.
The saga began in 2018, when the National Institutes of Health, one of the largest funding sources for medical research in the world, sent warnings to research institutions warning them of serious attempts by foreign entities to meddle in American-funded research. The NIH has opened 180 inquiries into 70 institutions with ties to this issue.
In some cases, researchers were being paid to work on the same projects by the Chinese government and paid in Chinese currency. Others would steal ideas from peer-reviewed proposals that originated the U.S. and were funded by U.S. agencies. Some ran “shadow labs” in China, where American-employed researchers would work for months at a time, and would not disclose this clear conflict of interest to their American employers or in grant proposals.
In 2019, Moffitt hosted seminars for employees, explaining the national concern from agencies like the NIH and the FBI over foreign attempts to take advantage of U.S.-backed medical research, and offering advice on how researchers could protect themselves. Around this time, Moffitt launched its own informal review of all faculty involved with a 12-year research partnership with a hospital in Tianjin, China. Mounting evidence led the cancer center to call in the international law firm Ropes & Gray for help.
It was after one of the Moffitt seminars that Sellers disclosed to the center’s leadership that he had been recruited into the Thousand Talents program, according to report, which includes passages on all six employees.
In one email exchange, List writes to Wei that his wife approved of opening a personal bank account in China related to the program.
“Kim (Dr. List’s spouse) is fine with opening a bank account," List wrote in an email to Wei in 2018, three years after he committed to joining the program. "I guess we can deposit the other funds waiting for us there into the account as well. What are the next steps?”
It is unclear how much money List received in that account, though he referenced his personal compensation as $71,000 in the application, the report said. List told investigators that he never withdrew funds from the account, but said he signed a form in 2016 which redirected $85,300 from his “Thousand Talents research funds” to Tianjin’s hematology department.
Sellers said $35,000 was deposited into a Chinese bank account he set up with Wei’s help in 2018. He told investigators that another $35,000 was to be deposited at a later date. Sellers initially told investigators he had not participated in a Talents program, but then changed his position after investigators revealed statements in which he’d told others that he applied for and received a program award, the report said.
Sullivan originally told investigators $80,000 was deposited into a Chinese account he’d set up through Wei, but had never withdrawn funds from. But a month later, he told his financial advisers that he was being paid $71,000 annually “for research work."
In one exchange, a co-worker said she was “really nervous about going to China” because of the Thousand Talents program, the report said. Sullivan responded that it was "good to live on the edge” and added: “Lawyers make you anxious? That is their job.”
Like others, Epling-Burnette opened a bank account under the guidance of Wei, received $35,000, and redirected $85,300 from a 2015 Thousand Talents award to the Tianjin center’s hematology department. She told investigators she withdrew up to $8,000 from the personal account in $400 increments through a Tampa Bay credit union. Epling-Burnette said she believed the “time commitment she made was for activities at Moffitt supervising Tianjin students”, the report said.
Epling-Burnette formally disclosed the $35,000 award to Moffitt, but only on the evening before she was set to be interviewed by investigators.
Wei, a biochemist, had worked at Moffitt since 2008. He became a close collaborator with List on multiple research proposals over the years.
“Although we come from different worlds, our worlds eventually converge at the tumor microenvironment. And we’ve been successfully converging for a number of years now," Wei said in a Moffitt publication.
Wei is also largely responsible for the cancer center’s partnership with his alma mater, the Tianjin Medical University Cancer Institute and Hospital, which began in 2008. Since then, Moffitt and Tianjin have conducted joint research projects. Graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, physician scientists and research nurses from Tianjin came to Moffitt for training, according a news release from 2018. The allure, the release said, is that Tianjin is located in a “free trade zone” that expedited approvals for clinical trials.
Moffitt officials are now reviewing the 12-year relationship with the 2,400-bed hospital outside of Beijing, which received $500,000 annually from the partnership.
The report to lawmakers estimates that Wei began recruiting on behalf of Chinese talent programs as early as 2010. He served as an “intermediary” between Moffitt personnel and the Tianjin center, and also tried to recruit scientists outside of Moffitt.
McLeod joined Moffitt in 2013 from the University of North Carolina. In his Twitter biography, he described himself as a “cancer doctor, precision medicine advocate, Thousand Talents scholar.” He has since removed the Thousand Talents mention, but lists a “foreign 1000 talent acknowledgement” with Central South University in Changsa, China, on his LinkedIn profile. Moffitt’s report suggests that McLeod had a well-established link to China long before he began working in Tampa.
McLeod maintained a close relationship with Dr. Yijing (Bob) He, the report said. It said He worked as a full-time Moffitt employee from 2014 to 2019 but resided and worked entirely in China, unbeknownst to Moffitt. McLeod claims he received $142,000 a year from the Talents program ... and $149,000 for every five-year renewal to the program as “start up research funding,” according to the report.
McLeod received grants from the Chinese government and co-authored research that listed his China connection as his only employer.
“In the last one-to-two years, universities have become more sensitive to these recruitment programs,” said Dr. Gary Ostrander, the vice president for research at Florida State University. “We’re talking a lot more about it. But the Chinese have been very clever about how they approach American researchers. Sometimes it starts with an award, and then an honorary appointment at a Beijing university. Then all of a sudden, you’re on a list somewhere and you didn’t disclose that in your grant proposals, and your world gets turned upside down.”
Upon announcing the resignations on Dec. 18, Moffitt officials turned over the investigation to the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability in Tallahassee. In letters exchanged between Moffitt attorneys and Rep. Sprowls, the lawmaker pleaded with Tampa officials to make the investigation public before the house committee meets on Jan. 21.
“When dealing with even the possibility that our institutions have been compromised, we have an obligation to be utterly transparent and shine a bright light on the truth,” Sprowls said. “The public has a right to know what went wrong at an institution that has received vast sums of the taxpayers’ money.”
In the wake of the Moffitt resignations, U.S. Senator Rick Scott sent letters to Florida university presidents requesting more information on any steps they have taken to protect intellectual property from “the influence of foreign adversaries, including Communist China.” In response, University of Florida President W. Kent Fuchs acknowledged that faculty members resigned or were terminated related to similar issues. Four UF employees were found to have ties with a foreign recruitment program.
The University of South Florida responded to Scott’s inquiry this week, revealing that no employees were found to have ties to foreign influence.
“No, we are not aware of, nor have we identified, any USF employee who has failed to disclose their participation in a Chinese-funded recruitment program or any USF employee who has shared unauthorized information with a foreign entity," reads a Jan. 15 letter from USF President Steve Currall, who is also a member of Moffitt’s board of directors.
Two of the former Moffitt employees, Wei and Sullivan, held “courtesy academic appointments” at USF, which were unpaid, Currall’s letter said. Both appointments have since been terminated.
Florida State University also responded to Scott’s letter, Ostrander said. The university has no known incidents of this kind of activity.
“Universities and research institutions aren’t like some big corporations or even the military. It doesn’t come naturally to guard our information,” Ostrander said. “It’s a culture shift and we’re working through it.”
The Moffitt investigation: a timeline
Moffitt Cancer Center begins an affiliation with Tianjin Medical University Cancer Institute and Hospital in China “to provide training and consultation in the delivery of oncology services, education and research.”
Moffitt and the Tianjin hospital enter into an agreement that pays Moffitt $500,000 a year in exchange for various services, including helping to assess cancer cases at the Tianjin hospital.
The National Institutes of Health raises concerns to hospitals and research institutions about potential foreign influence, particularly from China, in research projects. The agency warns institutions to make sure researchers are disclosing financial interests and other ties to foreign entities. Moffitt informs its faculty and leaders to make sure all of their disclosure statements are current and accurate.
Moffitt’s Compliance Office hears about involvement by several staff in China’s “Thousand Talents” recruitment program and begins to investigate. Moffitt’s relationship with the Tianjin hospital gets closer scrutiny.
Moffitt’s internal investigation reveals that one doctor on staff was working in China full-time and, it is suggested, spending much of his time on non-Moffitt matters. The doctor, Yijing (Bob) He, is fired. Moffitt hires an international law firm, Ropes & Gray, to help with the investigation. Moffittt again reminds employees to make sure they disclose all financial interests and other support from foreign entities.
The FBI briefs Moffitt investigators on China’s “Talents” programs and how they recruit people. An email search finds applications to those programs from more Moffitt employees, including Moffitt president and CEO Alan List. Investigators focus on the role of Dr. Sheng Wei, a veteran Moffitt researcher who recruited List and others into the Talents program. A formal investigation is launched and overseen by a committee of the Moffitt board.
Dec. 18, 2019
After a series of meetings and briefings in November and early December, the Moffitt board hears the results of the investigation. List, Wei and four other Moffitt employees are forced to resign.