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Feds: Stony Brook professor stole from cancer research funds

Stony Brook University professor Geoffrey Girnun leaves federal

Stony Brook University professor Geoffrey Girnun leaves federal court in Central Islip on Thursday after pleading not guilty to charges of theft, wire fraud and money laundering.  Credit: James Carbone

A professor and noted cancer researcher at Stony Brook University's medical school stole $225,000 meant for his department and used the money for personal expenses and mortgage payments, according to a federal indictment unsealed Thursday in Central Islip. 

The seven-count indictment charged Geoffrey Girnun, an associate professor of pathology and director of cancer metabolomics at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook, with theft of state and federal government funds, wire fraud and money laundering. 

Girnun, 48, of Woodmere, allegedly created shell companies that billed the National Institutes of Health and Stony Brook University for research-related equipment and services that were never provided. After receiving payment, Girnun transferred the funds to his personal bank accounts for expenses and mortgage payments, according to the indictment, filed in federal court in Central Islip.

“Professor Girnun’s alleged theft of federal and state grant funds earmarked for cancer research can be explained in two words: pure greed,” said Richard P. Donoghue, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. “He will now be held to account in a federal courtroom.”

Girnun pleaded not guilty during his arraignment Thursday afternoon in Central Islip. He was taken into custody early Thursday morning at his home, according to one of his attorneys, Steven A. Metcalf II of New York. 

Girnun’s lead attorney, Steve Siegel of Garden City, described Girnun as a Harvard-educated scientist who “has made remarkable improvements in the lives of cancer patients.”

“I believe when everything is resolved it will be a little different picture,” Siegel said. 

Girnun is a “family man,” a father of five who has been married for 28 years, Metcalf said.

Magistrate Judge Arlene R. Lindsay set Girnun’s bond at $250,000 but released him with the understanding he will come up with the bond funds by 5 p.m. Friday. Girnun is scheduled to return to court Oct. 4. 

According to the indictment, Girnun began submitting false invoices just weeks after he started in November 2013 as an associate professor in Stony Brook medical school's department of pathology. The scheme continued until this month, the court papers said. 

In a statement, the university said it had placed Girnun, who according to records earned nearly $145,000 at Stony Brook in 2018, on administrative leave.

"The university is outraged and appalled by the allegations that led to the arrest of Geoffrey Girnun today," the statement read. "This alleged behavior is absolutely contrary to the ethical and professional standards expected of our faculty. The university has fully cooperated with the investigation and at this time is considered by the FBI as a victim in this matter."

Girnun received a  doctorate from the University of Iowa, and did a postdoctoral fellowship at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School. In 2007 he was recruited by the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.

He served as the senior author of a widely noted 2012 study about a potential breakthrough in cancer research that found a drug used to treat diabetes, metformin, may also prevent liver cancer. The conclusion of an exhaustive 2016 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, "implies that metformin use significantly benefits the survival of diabetic liver cancer patients." The federal agency added that more studies were needed to confirm the benefits.

FBI assistant director-in-charge William Sweeney said millions of Americans rely on the benefits of cancer research.

“While people continued to suffer from their illnesses, Girnun made payments toward his personal mortgage with the money he stole. His conduct is despicable," Sweeney said.

If found guilty of the charges, Girnun faces up to 20 years in prison, officials said.

“These charges are going to be defended zealously and vigorously,” Metcalf said.

With Bart Jones

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