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Former Moffitt Cancer Center director sues over forced resignation

The lawsuit by Thomas Sellers says he was not part of a Chinese recruitment program at the center of a controversy that led to his ouster.
Thomas Sellers, a former director at Moffitt Cancer Center, has filed a lawsuit saying he was unjustifiably forced to resign. [Moffitt Cancer Center]

A top official at Moffitt Cancer Center who resigned under pressure amid a controversy over exploitation of American-funded research by China has filed a lawsuit, alleging he was unjustifiably forced to leave his job.

Thomas Sellers, a vice president and director of cancer research at Moffitt until his resignation late last year, says in the lawsuit that he was not part of the now-contentious “Thousand Talents” program, an initiative designed to recruit experts from the U.S. and elsewhere to collaborate with researchers in China.

That program has been criticized by some in the U.S. government as a way for the communist country to gain access to American knowledge and technology.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in Hillsborough County Circuit Court against Moffitt Cancer Center and Dr. Sheng Wei, a former Moffitt researcher who, according to the center, recruited colleagues into Thousand Talents. The suit says Moffitt had encouraged its employees for years to work with colleagues in China, but forced the resignation of several of its employees “as soon as the collaboration began to catch national attention and negative press and the FBI contacted Moffitt.”

Sellers was among six esteemed scientists who were forced to resign from Moffitt in December. The group included Dr. Alan List, Moffitt’s former chief executive officer.

Moffitt’s director of strategic communications, Mark Hendrickson, responded to the lawsuit, saying in a statement that the center “stands behind its findings from the investigation of Dr. Sellers and will vigorously defend any legal action filed against the cancer center.”

Related: Moffitt Cancer Center shakeup: CEO and others resign over China ties

Moffitt’s report on the shakeup said that the employees who were forced to resign failed to disclose their involvement in Thousand Talents, despite repeated warnings to do so from the government and officials inside Moffitt. The report also said Sellers was involved in the program and that he’d opened a bank account in Tianjin.

Sellers said in the lawsuit that he had declined to participate in the Thousand Talents program and did not perform any research for China or accept any money from that country. The lawsuit alleged that Wei had forged Sellers’ signature on an application to become part of the program.

Sellers’ attorney, Brandon Scheele with law firm Morgan & Morgan, said in an interview that his client did not knowingly open the bank account in Tianjin. He said Sellers signed a document that was written in Chinese without knowing at the time that it was to open a bank account.

Scheele said that while some employees may have engaged in inappropriate conduct, his client did not. He said Sellers was ousted because Moffitt wanted to get rid of anyone who had even the appearance of an inappropriate relationship with China.

“They bombed a village to save the castle,” Scheele said. “They made sure their institution came out looking like they did everything they could.”

The lawsuit alleges that Moffitt’s decision to oust Sellers was “overzealous and irresponsible” and done out of concern it could lose standing with the National Institutes of Health. The NIH last year awarded 83 grants totaling nearly $36 million to Moffitt, according to the federal agency’s online database.

The lawsuit seeks damages for lost wages, mental anguish, emotional distress and other issues. It notes that Sellers’ relationship with the NIH has been damaged, making him “nearly unemployable.”

Scheele said that what his client really wants is to have his name cleared and to get an apology from Moffitt.

“He loved Moffitt; he loved the work he was doing,” Scheele said. “His character has been attacked. It hurts him to the core.”

Related: FBI official addresses China influence investigations at Moffitt Cancer Center, UF
Related: Top Moffitt Cancer Center doctors failed to disclose payments from China, report says

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