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Moffitt returns $1 million to state. Money was linked to scientist with China ties.

The cancer center said it couldn’t tell whether the money tied to Howard McLeod was spent “as it should have been.”
A scene from a research lab at Tampa's Moffitt Cancer Center, which returned $1 million to the state on Friday. Moffitt said it originally received the money from the state health department but could not confirm whether it had been properly spent. [Courtesy of Moffitt Cancer Center]

TAMPA — Officials at Moffitt Cancer Center returned more than $1 million to the state on Friday, saying they could not determine whether the money was properly spent by one of its scientists tied to the recent investigation into Chinese meddling.

The funds originally were used to provide a salary and staff for Howard McLeod, medical director of the DeBartolo Family Personalized Medicine Institute at Moffitt and a senior member in Moffitt’s department of cancer epidemiology. McLeod was forced resign in December, along with former Moffitt CEO Alan List and four other scientists, after an internal investigation found they did not disclose ties to Chinese recruitment programs.

RELATED: Top Moffitt Cancer Center doctors failed to disclose payments from China, report says

“Out of an abundance of caution, Moffitt is refunding $1,093,890 that it could not confirm was spent as it should have been,” Yvette Tremonti, Moffitt’s chief financial and administrative officer, said in a statement. The money was sent to the office of Jimmy Patronis, Florida’s chief financial officer.

McLeod could not be reached Friday for comment. The Tampa Bay Times attempted to contact him by phone and social media. He also has not responded to previous communications from the Times in recent weeks.

His salary was financed with state funds from the Florida Department of Health through an agreement with Moffitt beginning in 2013, the year McLeod was hired. The purpose, Tremonti wrote in a letter to Patronis, was to support and expand Moffitt’s cancer research and clinical trials, with “major goals to attract and retain experienced and grant producing researchers.”

Through the agreement, Moffitt received more than $3.3 million to be used from July 2013 to June 2020. Moffitt used a total of $2.8 million from the endowment as of June 30 last year.

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 mention of Thousand Talents, a 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. But McLeod listed a “foreign 1000 talent acknowledgement” with Central South University in Changsa, China, on his LinkedIn profile. An investigative report released last month from Moffitt suggests that he 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 Dr. 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, all while maintaining a full-time research position in Tampa.

RELATED: Moffitt’s push for state money is clouded by China investigation

McLeod received grants from the Chinese government and co-authored research that listed his China connection as his only employer. He filed at least one patent in his name in China in 2017 and maintained other commercial interests in the country.

“Based on our internal review and the ambiguity created by their undisclosed outside activities, Moffitt has chosen to refund to the state the funds for their salaries," Tremonti wrote in the letter.

In addition, Moffitt is refunding monies tied to expenses that “could not be easily attributable to the intent of the agreement.” Moffitt officials would not elaborate.

According to the center’s internal investigation, six of its 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." Researchers from prominent academic institutions — from Harvard, to Emory University and the MD Anderson Center Center in Texas — have faced federal investigations and criminal charges related to Chinese ties.

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