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Ex-Stony Brook professor pleads guilty to stealing cancer research funds

Geoffrey Girnun, 49, of Woodmere, an associate professor of pathology at the Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook, pleaded guilty Tuesday to stealing $225,000 in grant money meant for cancer research. (Credit: James Carbone)

A former professor at the medical school at Stony Brook University pleaded guilty Tuesday in connection with diverting $225,000 in grant money meant for cancer research to pay his mortgage and other personal expenses, according to officials.  

Geoffrey Girnun, 49, of Woodmere, who had been an associate professor of pathology and cancer investigator himself, pleaded guilty to a single count of theft of government funds as part of a plea deal before U.S. District Judge Denis Hurley in Central Islip.    

Girnun, who resigned from the university in December, also led a lab and was the main investigator on a number of cancer research projects. He was the senior author of a widely circulated 2012 study about a significant discovery in cancer research that indicated the drug metformin, normally used to treat diabetes, may also prevent liver cancer.

The stolen grant money came from both the National Institutes of Health and Stony Brook.

Girnun was arrested in September and had been charged with theft of state and federal government funds, wire fraud and money laundering. He faces between 24 and 30 months in prison when he is sentenced, and up to 3 years of supervised release after that.

The single count Girnun pled to involved the theft of $78,000 in grants. But as part of the deal, Girnun also agreed to make restitution of a total of $225,000 to the NIH and Stony Brook and forfeit another $225,000.

In pleading guilty, Girnun told Judge Hurley: "Between December 2013 and 2017, I took a portion of the research grant funds that I had received from the National Institutes of Health, and converted them to my own personal use. I had received the NIH grant to pay for research expenses, but I improperly and knowingly used some of the grant to pay for my personal expenses, including the mortgage on my home.”

Girnun declined to speak afterward, as did Eastern District Assistant U.S. Attorney Erin Agro.

Girnun’s attorney, Michael Yaeger, said after the plea that his client "regrets his actions and takes full responsibility."

Federal prosecutors said Girnun created shell companies that billed the National Institutes of Health and Stony Brook for research-related equipment and services that were never provided. After receiving payment in the shell companies, 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.

The theft scheme began in 2013, with his submitting false invoices, just weeks after Girnun was hired by the medical school, according to officials. Girnun earned a salary of $145,000 a year at Stony Brook.

Eastern District U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue said in a statement: “With today’s guilty plea, Girnun has been held accountable for his unconscionable scheme to embezzle for his personal use hundreds of thousands of dollars in government funds to help find a cure for cancer.”

Lauren Sheprow, a spokeswoman for Stony Brook, said in a statement: "The University is outraged and appalled by the actions that led to the guilty plea by Geoffrey Girnun today. This behavior is absolutely contrary to the ethical and professional standards expected of our faculty. Dr. Girnun has resigned from the University and has no remaining affiliation.”

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