As the Florida Legislature’s 2020 session wound down in early March, a special committee led by State Rep. Chris Sprowls was just getting started.
The Palm Harbor Republican was investigating a scandal that had spread across the nation and now enveloped Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center, the University of Florida and other state institutions. Florida-based scientists had left themselves vulnerable to efforts by the Chinese government to access closely held medical research funded by the United States.
Then another medical emergency made it all a memory.
The day before that March 2 meeting, the first two cases of the coronavirus turned up in Florida. Sprowls’ committee has not met since, and the investigation has been set in a corner, its future uncertain.
“Our priorities have shifted,” Sprowls said in a recent interview. “But this is very important to me, and we’re going to come back to it with vigor. ... There are still answers we need.”
He said he hoped the panel, called the House Select Committee on the Integrity of Research Institutions, could reconvene in the summer. A timeline, however, won’t be determined until after the coronavirus threat passes.
In the meantime, Moffitt has been working to replace former CEO Dr. Alan List and other top leaders who were ousted after an internal report revealed they failed to disclose ties to so-called “talent” programs aimed at recruiting U.S. scientists to work on research in China. The document, released in January, revealed that List and others accepted money from China, opened Chinese bank accounts, and pledged to work on biomedical research there.
Officials discovered similar issues at the University of Florida and the University of Central Florida, where research faculty working in dual roles in the U.S. and China raised the specter of foreign meddling and intellectual property theft. Sprowls’ committee took testimony from a local FBI director and officials at Moffitt, UF, UCF and the State University System.
The first interviews for a new CEO have been conducted and Moffitt expects to hire by the fall, said Mark Hendrickson, the cancer center’s director of strategic communications.
List updated his LinkedIn profile in January to “physician scientist” and “clinical trial consultant” with no affiliation to any organization.
John Cleveland was named Moffitt’s new center director for research in April, replacing Tom Sellers, who was one of the five researchers tied to the China’s Thousand Talents Program. Sellers has since filed a lawsuit against Moffitt.
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Other former Moffitt researchers have hired lawyers but have not filed complaints. They include Howard McLeod, the former medical director of the DeBartolo Family Personalized Medicine Institute at Moffitt and a senior member in Moffitt’s department of cancer epidemiology. Moffitt’s investigative report suggests 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. Unbeknownst to Moffitt, it said, Dr. He was a full-time Moffitt employee from 2014 to 2019 while living and working in China.
McLeod says he received $142,000 a year from the Thousand 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.
Moffitt said McLeod also 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 China in 2017 and maintained other commercial interests in that country, the report said.
In the weeks after the scandal broke, Moffitt returned more than $1 million to the state that had been used to fund McLeod’s salary. The money originally had come to Moffitt from the Florida Department of Health through an agreement to support and expand the center’s cancer research and clinical trials, with “major goals to attract and retain experienced and grant-producing researchers.”
Theresa Van Vliet, McLeod’s Fort Lauderdale-based attorney, said that many of the accusations in Moffitt’s report are “simply wrong.”
She said McLeod made his China connections known to Moffitt and he had no commercial interests in that country.
Van Vliet issued a statement that included emails and other internal documents. The materials suggest McLeod was transparent about his relationships with Chinese institutions.
“To be clear, the only thing of value McLeod received as part of the program was he was provided with a visa waiver card to expedite entry into and out of China, and he was not required to spend his personal funds for travel and accommodations to make his twice yearly visits to China,” the statement read.
Van Vliet also said the patent filed in China had nothing to do with McLeod, and the filing included misspelled versions of his name. If he had anything to do with the filing, she argued, “he might have spelled his own name correctly.”
Email correspondence between McLeod and Moffitt colleagues suggests that others knew Dr. He was in China.
As the legislative session ended in March, another major Moffitt issue also slipped into the background. The center went into the session hoping to secure $400 million for a hospital and research center in Pasco County. Moffitt wanted to increase its share of the state’s cigarette tax to secure the funding, but bills proposed by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, and Rep. J.W. Grant, R-Tampa, gained no traction.
The need for those new facilities “has never been greater,” said Hendrickson, the Moffitt spokesman.
Center officials seem poised to make a similar request during the 2021 session. But much will depend on the course of the virus and whether the China scandal lingers over Moffitt’s reputation.
Sprowls’ committee has yet to put forth guidelines or suggest rules for Florida institutions to follow. But he said he is pleased with its work so far.
“We really peeled back the onion in a short period of time,” Sprowls said. “We exposed the threat with specific examples and brought light to the issue.”