Internal investigation of alleged fraud at UM subsidiary company VitaK completed
MAASTRICHT. VitaK, the now bankrupt subsidiary company of Maastricht University, was not supervised closely enough, allowing conflicts of interest to arise. And Leon Schurgers, a UM professor who used to work for VitaK, was involved in questionable activities with false invoices. These are the results of an investigation conducted by UM after local newspaper De Limburger and Dutch weekly news magazine De Groene Amsterdammer published allegations of fraud at VitaK last summer. The university now emphasises that it has been tightening up the rules and regulations for its researchers’ commercial activities in the past few years and will continue to do so.
In June 2019, De Groene Amsterdammer and De Limburger broke the news that two researchers at Maastricht University had allegedly enriched themselves through UM subsidiary company VitaK. The researchers involved were Leon Schurgers, then an employee of VitaK and currently a professor at UM, and Cees Vermeer, former CEO of VitaK and professor emeritus at UM. Vermeer founded the company in 2001 as part of UM Holding to commercialize research on vitamin K, for example by selling patents in exchange for research funding. Schurgers had been Vermeer’s intern, was his PhD student and his intended successor.
According to the journalists who broke the news, Schurgers illegally received €70,000 from Norwegian pharmaceutical company NattoPharma – VitaK’s largest customer at the time – in 2008. They also alleged that patents had been given to another company, benefiting Schurgers in particular. And that wasn’t all. VitaK CEO Vermeer had also allegedly transferred antibodies (proteins that can be used to measure vitamin K levels) to a company owned by Schurgers. After retiring, Vermeer received a €500,000 bonus. The journalists alleged that he fooled the pension fund with the help of the university.
After these allegations were published, the UM Executive Board ordered its legal and financial department to reconstruct the events. Observant has been given access to the results of the investigation, which was completed a few weeks ago and is currently being reviewed by the Dutch Inspectorate of Education. The results appear to confirm that Schurgers committed fraud. The report emphasises that neither UM nor VitaK were negatively affected by his actions. The other allegations made by the journalists did not constitute misconduct, according to the investigators. They did find email interactions in which the people involved expressed “questionable ideas” to avoid taxes and deductions. The report also admits that VitaK was not supervised closely enough, allowing conflicts of interest – or the appearance thereof – to arise.
As for the fraud allegedly committed by Schurgers: in 2008, an internal audit at Norwegian pharmaceutical company NattoPharma revealed that illegal payments had been made to VitaK employee Schurgers. UM’s investigation appears to suggest that Schurgers received this money as a reward for his efforts. A NattoPharma employee had created false invoices. Schurgers didn’t tell anyone about these payments at the time.
Does this constitute fraud? VitaK’s former management thought so, but the current UM Executive Board doesn’t want to call it that. As interim spokesperson Fons Elbersen says, “The investigation didn’t show that Schurgers intentionally misled anyone. The payments were fraudulent, but he didn’t commit fraud. Accepting the payments was illegal, though.” It’s unclear how much money Schurgers received in all. Some of the sources and documents say he received €66,000, others say he received €70,000 and yet others say he received €56,000.
The UM Executive Board at the time (which included Jo Ritzen, the then chair of the board and therefore a shareholder in UM Holding), Jan Cobbenhagen (CEO of UM Holding), and Vermeer concluded that Schurgers’s actions were wrong. But they didn’t fire him, most likely because he was of great scientific and/or commercial value to VitaK. In 2008, Schurgers was informed that he would never become CEO of the company and his salary would be frozen for at least two years. He also couldn’t become a full professor at UM for at least two years. In December 2017, he was appointed professor of biochemistry of vascular calcification at the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences. By that point in time, he had been working at UM for eight years.
The internal investigation revealed that the former board of CARIM, the UM research institute Schurgers works for, did ask questions about the case of suspected fraud in the past. They asked André Postema, then vice chair of the Executive Board, how he thought about Schurgers’s academic career at UM and whether they should give Schurgers a chance. Postema said yes. Awkwardly enough, the investigation also revealed that Schurgers’s questionable actions in the past never ended up in his personnel file at the faculty. It’s unclear who left out the information and whether or not this was done on purpose. Either way, UM doesn’t see this as an attempt to sweep things under the carpet.
Schurgers’s personnel file was “incomplete in some respects”, confirms interim spokesperson Elbersen, but the Executive Board won’t attach any consequences to this. The fact that Schurger’s file was incomplete “doesn’t mean that any wrong decisions were made”. He emphasises that Schurgers was appointed full professor “based on his scientific achievements”.
Schurgers declined to comment on the matter.
The subsidiary company, VitaK, was declared bankrupt on 23 October 2018. As the bankruptcy case is still under supervision, UM didn’t have access to the company archives. This means that some sources were inaccessible to the investigators. Despite this, UM doesn’t feel like the report gives an incomplete picture of the situation.
In its reaction, UM emphasises that the case must be seen in context. Ten years ago, the university went about valorisation activities (the operational management of UM’s subsidiary companies) very differently from the way it does today. For example, all patents are now placed in a patent fund.
According to the Executive Board, a lot has changed since this case took place. “The initiative to review [researchers’ commercial activities] was taken before the articles about this case were published”, says Elbersen. “It’s a normal step in a continuous optimization process. It’s more accurate to consider the development of the Brightlands campuses as a catalyst for this [initiative].”
The Executive Board is already aware of the importance of registering ancillary activities, for example, but improvements can still be made. How? Firstly by “continuously raising awareness”, says Elbersen, and secondly by “improving the regulations and the registration process”. External experts are currently working on an investigation to “advise us on how to further improve the way we go about our valorisation activities”. The results of this investigation are expected in a few months.