A former Stony Brook University professor who admitted that he had stolen $225,000 in cancer research grant money to pay his mortage and other personal expenses was sentenced to a year and a day in prison Tuesday.
Cancer researcher Geoffrey Girnun, 49, a former associate professor of pathology at Stony Brook, told U.S. District Judge Denis R. Hurley that he had brought shame to his family and cancer research colleagues -- and that he would spend the rest of his life trying to atone for his crime.
"I need to learn to make amends and become a better person," Girnun told Hurley during a sentencing hearing conducted by telephone because of coronavirus concerns.
Girnun was arrested in September 2019 and charged with theft of state and federal government funds, wire fraud and money laundering. He pleaded pleaded guilty to a single count of theft of government funds as part of a deal with federal prosecutors in January.
Federal prosecutors said Girnun stole approximately $78,000 in National Institutes of Health funds that were earmarked for cancer research and about $147,000 from the Stony Brook Foundation and state-sponsored grants, The theft began in December 2013, shortly after Girnun was hired by the university, and continued until December 2017. Girnun used the money to pay his mortgage and other personal expenses, 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, according to prosecutors. After receiving payment in the shell companies, Girnun transferred the funds to his personal bank accounts.
Michelle Bulls, director of the NIH Office for Policy for Extramural Research Administration, said before the ex-professor was sentenced that Girnun’s theft robbed funds that other researchers could have used help cancer patients and eroded public trust in medical researchers.
Richard Reeder, Stony Brook’s vice president for research, and Deborah Lowen-Klein, the university’s interim vice president for advancement, said Girnun had betrayed donors and colleagues, and that his crime is especially egregious because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"The university is satisfied with today’s ruling in the case of Geoffrey Girnun," Stony Brook officials said in a statement after the sentencing. "Judge Hurley’s sentence sends a strong message that criminal and unethical professional behavior that breaches the trust of donors and funding agencies who fund life-saving research will not be tolerated and will have severe consequences."
Girnun, a father of five, joined the Stony Brook faculty after spending several years as a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. His attorney, Michael Yaeger of New York, told Hurley that Girnun did not take the money to fund a luxurious lifestyle. Gurnin, who earned $145,000 a year as an associate professor, wanted to buy a home on Long Island to spend time with his family.
"He wanted to stop commuting from Baltimore to Long Island," Yaeger said. "He wanted to stop sleeping on the floor of his office."
Yager said Girnun has agreed to pay back the money he stole and has already paid back $100,000.
But prosecutor Erin Argo said Gurnin conducted a "sophisticated and complex scheme" that lasted for years and would have continued if he had not been arrested.
Girnun, who resigned from the university in December, 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 defendant’s theft of cancer research funds undermined the important mission of the National Institute of Health, Stony Brook University and his fellow researchers, who are dedicated to curing this deadly illness," said Seth DuCharme, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York.