Another ethics scandal for the University of Minnesota Dept. of Psychiatry

The University of Minnesota has another ethics scandal on its hands. And once again it involves the Department of Psychiatry. This latest case of research misconduct involves falsifying records.

Dr. Ken Winters is a Psychologist who has worked at the U of M for 26 years. He was about to begin a new study for the National Institute on Drug Abuse on ways to stop teenagers from taking drugs, but before proceeding, a University review board wanted Winters to get something in writing from the federal government. 

It would have been a legal document that would protect researchers from having to disclose confidential information about study participants should those participants ever get into trouble with the law. Winters told the Fox 9 Investigators he got tired of waiting for the paperwork to arrive so he falsified his own version and turned it in to the University so the study could begin.

He declined an on camera interview but agreed to have his voice recorded.

"Poor judgement on my part," Winters said. "It was a terrible thing I did, so I have no real explanation. I've got no defense. My own stupidity, poor judgement."

Winters also said within hours of turning in the phony documents, he fessed up after being approached by concerned staff members. His misconduct is yet another slam for the school's Department of Psychiatry.

Earlier this spring, a legislative audit, prompted by a Fox 9 Investigation, found serious ethical concerns and conflicts of interest relating to the death of a research participant in a Psych Department drug trial.

"It is a serious ethical breach. It is another indication that there are issues and problems in the drug trials at the University Department of Psychiatry that need attention," Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles said.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse told the Fox 9 Investigators "it takes allegations of research misconduct seriously."  But wouldn't comment on what, if anything, it’s doing about this case.

Winters said he hasn't been disciplined by the University for falsifying the document. Instead, he was given the option to retire at the end of the month.

"Seems like a best for both sides. I didn't want to raise more problems for my poor department and put more of this in the spotlight," Winters said.

Former Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson believes the school is letting Winters off too easy. 

"He should have been dismissed, no question about it. And he should be subject to whatever legal charges that requires," Carlson said.

The University issued a statement to Fox 9 reading it takes "...research misconduct extremely seriously."  "The study in question never even started..." There has been no threat to patient safety..."

If Winters was willing to fake documents for this study, it raises the question: has he done it for others as well?

"No, one time. Just a terrible one time mistake," Winters said. "We've got the cleanest record, the most ethical staff."

Winters’ research study was being funded by the Conrad Hilton Foundation. A spokesperson said "it's an unfortunate situation and we are in the midst of addressing it with the University."  The spokesperson wouldn't say if the misconduct would affect the Foundation's future funding of research projects at the University.

Dr. Winters was in charge of several other research studies.  According to the University, those projects have now been turned over to other researchers.


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