Researcher filed whistleblower complaint against AU in monkey’s death

Screenshot taken from a document submitted with Dr. Hegde’s whistleblower grievance to AU. (by Emily Garcia)

Augusta University (AU) Researcher Dr. Jay Hedge named AU and the Board of Regents as defendants in a lawsuit for damages under Georgia’s Whistleblower Act, following the death of one of his monkeys and termination of his research grant.

According to Dr. Hegde’s grievance files at Augusta University (AU) and the case filed in Richmond County Superior Court on August 8, 2016, Dr. Hegde’s Rhesus monkey, Ovechkin, died in 2014 after a routine surgical operation on his brain. 

Dr. Hegde, who did not participate in anesthetizing the animal, performed the surgery in January 2014 with no surgical errors and participated in the post-mortem necropsy report. He alleged that Ovechkin’s death was the result of an AU veterinarian giving the monkey too much narcotic painkiller after waking. 

AU issued two different necropsy reports following Ovechkin’s death. One report listed that the monkey was “deceased (sic) under during recovery time” and another version of the report listed that the monkey was, “deceased under anesthesia.” Neither report admitted any narcotic overdose.

The findings AU later sent to the federal government via the Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW) Director Dr. Axel Wolff labeled Ovechkin’s cause of death as cardiopulmonary arrest.

Dr. Hegde sent a whistleblower complaint to the faculty grievance committee at AU containing sworn affidavits from three doctors. One of the doctors, Dr. Charles Gray affirmed that he helped perform the procedure, all went smoothly, and the monkey was successfully awakened and extubated [had breathing tubes removed from his airways post-operation]. 

Dr. Gray said: “I cannot logically see why the animal would have been extubated had the animal failed to exhibit clear signs that it had recovered sufficiently from anesthesia.”

Therefore, Ovechkin likely could not have died as a result of anesthesia, according to Dr. Gray’s affidavit.

According to Dr. Hegde’s complaint to the faculty senate, AU falsified necropsy report documents to make Ovechkin’s death look like something other than a narcotic overdose, and by extension, avoided having to communicate veterinarian malfeasance to OLAW.

The report AU’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) sent to OLAW included descriptionsof what it reported to be Ovechkin’s brain and documents signed by AU officials that contended his death was caused by anesthesia.

Dr. Hegde’s whistleblower complaint details how Ovechkin’s brain was not preserved for testing after the necropsy was completed and therefore the pictures AU provided could not be of Ovechkin’s brain. Furthermore, the complaint alleged that the brain pictures were not even pictures of a Rhesus monkey’s brain.

Dr. Hegde reported what he believed to be foul play to multiple officials within AU, as well as several federal and state government agencies.

Subsequently, Dr. Hegde’s other Rhesus monkey, Crosby, was taken off his research protocol by AU officials who said that the monkey could not be tested on anymore because he was not considered a healthy body weight; although Crosby maintained the same body weight he had in tests prior with no issues. 

With Crosby taken off protocol, AU requested that the National Science Foundation (NSF) cancel Dr. Hegde’s grant and the NSF complied, citing its legal obligation to do so.

After nearly four years Dr. Hegde’s case for damages under the Whistleblower Act is still open. 

More recently, in late April 2019, Dr. Hegde’s lawyer Tanya Jeffords asked the Court to order the testing of brain tissue that was sent by AU to Charles River Animals Diagnostic Services in Massachusetts in February of 2015. 

AU asserts that the tissue samples came from Ovechkin’s brain. Dr. Hegde and his lawyers contend not only that the samples are not from Ovechkin’s brain, but that they are not even from the brain of a Rhesus monkey to begin with.

Initially the Board of Regents legal defense team, including Attorney General of Georgia Christopher Carr, told the Court that samples from Charles River could not be tested because they reached out to the staff at Charles River and were informed that the lab only holds sample tissue for about one month and therefore the brain would no longer be there. The Board of Regents legal defense team requested that Dr. Hegde’s motion to test be denied as moot.

On June 10, 2019 Dr. Hegde’s lawyers also reached out to Charles River regarding samples of the monkey tissue and were told by the Senior Director of Pathology Dr. Theresa Albers that paraffin blocks and slides from Ovechkin’s case were still in existence.

The defense responded that they “honestly believed the samples had been destroyed,” but proceeded to clarify that they were informed by Charles River that “samples” were different from “paraffin blocks and slides.” The defense concluded their response to this discovery of tissue by saying it should not be tested because to do so would be a violation of the Civil Practice Act and the Uniform Rules of the Supreme Court. AU further requested the court issue an order to protect AU from abusive discovery. The defense also requested an additional hearing on this matter.

According to relevant documents filed in the Georgia Court of Appeals in Atlanta, AU requested an interlocutory appeal to reiterate their request of a hearing with a higher court, on December 2, 2019.

An interlocutory appeal, in the law of civil procedure in the United States, occurs when a ruling by a trial court is appealed while other aspects of the case are still proceeding. 

AU’s appeal was answered with a single sentence that read, “Upon consideration of the Application for Interlocutory Appeal, it is ordered that it be hereby DENIED.”

The hearing AU requested in Richmond County Superior court to protect the paraffin blocks and slides from “abusive discovery” has not yet been denied and may still occur. This case is ongoing.

According to Senior Communications and Media Coordinator Danielle Harris, AU does not comment on pending litigation.

The article originally appeared on the Bell Ringer’s website:

Published by Emily G. Garcia

Enterprise Reporter at The Red & Black

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