Almost nothing could seem more philanthropic and transparent by its very nature – and so far removed from the money-crazed culture of, say, Wall Street – than science. But, however ironic, even such a noble enterprise is not immune to the quirks of human nature.
Poul Thorsen, a Danish scientist well known for his autism research, has landed a spot on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General's most wanted fugitives list. Thorsen is wanted on 13 counts of wire fraud and nine counts of money laundering and is currently awaiting extradition from Denmark, where he is believed to be hiding, officials said. He is accused of having stolen over $1 million dollars in federally awarded grant money, which he used to buy a half-million-dollar home in Atlanta, Ga., a Harley Davidson motorcycle and two cars.
Thorsen, a visiting fellow at the Division of Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities at the time, was a recipient of two federal grants issued by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 1999 and 2007 for research involving infant disabilities, autism, genetic disorders and fetal alcohol syndrome. The grants were initially awarded to the Danish Medical Research Council, a Danish government body, which later changed its named to the Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation. Thorsen later became the principal investigator responsible for administering the money, according to his indictment.
The agency also found that Thorsen had opened an account with the CDC Federal Credit Union. The invoices requested that the money be transferred there.
The first sign of suspicious activity came in 2009 when DASTI contacted the CDC over a letter it received with an official CDC letterhead asking for reimbursement for ongoing research. The letter purported that there was a remaining balance of $894,000 in the grant, according to HHS Office of Inspector General Special Agent Derrick Jackson. After confirming that the grant had already been spent, the CDC launched an investigation. It found that the letter and several prior invoices sent to the Danish agency were fraudulent and contained forged signatures of CDC employees.
"What better way to make it appear legit than to make it look like [the money] was wired directly to CDC?" Jackson said. However, anyone can set up an account with the credit union.
An unnamed CDC official, who was later exonerated, helped Thorsen wire the money that was deposited in Thorsen's credit union account while under the impression that the funds came from donations, Jackson said. The money was sent to Thorsen, his wife and others in Denmark.
Thorsen has contributed to research that disproved the link between the rising cases of autism and vaccine exposure. One in 88 children are diagnosed with autism in the United States annually, a number that has spiked by 78 percent between 2002 and 2008, according to the most recent CDC report. The cause of autism has not yet been determined.
Correction: This story was corrected at 1:15pm on October 30, 2013. Derrick Johnson was previously referred to as a CDC detective. He is a special agent at the HHS Office of Inspector General.