A prominent San Diego oncologist and the University of California are in court, arguing over claims of fraud, whistleblower retaliation and misuse of a massive $10 million gift — one of the largest-ever donations for a UCSD employee’s research.
A former UCSD vice chairman, Dr. Kevin Murphy, has been defending himself against allegations of employee misconduct since 2018, when colleagues and university officials began questioning him about his experimental brain stimulation treatment and associated businesses.
The disagreements escalated into competing lawsuits filed between the doctor and the university system in late 2020 and have culminated in a trial by jury that began last week. It’s expected to last six weeks total.
The facts of the case involve high-ranking UC officials, including attorneys in the UC Office of the President, top ethics and compliance officers and UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla, who was deposed and is on the witness list.
The case also features inewsource’s reporting. The doctor claims the UC system intentionally leaked damaging and inaccurate information to reporters to ruin his reputation.
inewsource’s 2020 investigation, “Rewired,” looked into Murphy’s experimental brain stimulation treatment, known as PrTMS, which he claimed could help patients with a wide variety of mental and cognitive disorders even though it had not gone through research trials. One patient, a Navy SEAL, experienced a psychotic break after undergoing more than 200 of the doctor’s treatments.
The reporting also chronicled how the $10 million donation, meant to help Murphy study PrTMS, went to waste — no research was performed, even though more than half the money has been spent.
The UC system sued Murphy in state court in September 2020, claiming the doctor set up private PrTMS businesses without university approval and deployed the technology on patients at his private clinic without university permission. It alleges Murphy used university resources and funding to enrich himself and his businesses.
Murphy “seeks to make his fortune through PrTMS,” an attorney for the UC system wrote in its trial brief.
“Essentially, Murphy brought his problems upon himself by misappropriating University resources, violating University rules, and lying (including lying by omission),” the brief states.
Murphy counter-sued, claiming UCSD higher-ups tried to use the large donation for their own purposes, interfered with his research and punished him for filing complaints about what happened, eventually not renewing his employment contract.
“The real government waste here is the millions of dollars UCSD has spent on serial investigations and legal actions to punish Dr. Murphy for standing up to the officials who sought to divert the ($10 million) gift,” Murphy’s attorney wrote in his trial brief.
The trial begins
Murphy is a former military engineer who became a specialist in pediatric cancer and was a distinguished employee at UCSD during his 15-year tenure. He served as a vice chairman in the university’s Department of Radiation Medicine and Applied Sciences and has spoken about his oncology work around the world.
Murphy has conducted 13 hours of interviews with inewsource about his controversial brain stimulation treatment and his disputes with UCSD, but the tall and commanding veteran has been silent in the courtroom during the trial.
Last week, he stood still with his head down as jurors walked by to take their seats for the first day of testimony.
So far, at least five current and former UC employees have taken the stand. They defended how the institution has handled the $10 million donation and the university’s inquiries into Murphy’s actions.
The jury first heard from Judy Bruner, UCSD’s chief compliance officer, who spoke about the two investigations the university commissioned after an anonymous whistleblower complained about Murphy in 2018. The first was conducted by the university’s internal auditing department and the second by the Boies Schiller Flexner law firm.
The investigations found Murphy had misused university resources, falsely claimed ownership over an invention, provided patient care without university authorization and repeatedly violated university policies about disclosing his business interests.
Bruner testified that the audits were conducted appropriately, and she was surprised by the “very serious” findings. She also said she became concerned that Murphy’s complaints about the university were an attempt to interfere with the investigation into him.
Additional testimony about the investigations was offered by Alex Bustamante, the chief compliance officer overseeing all UC campuses, who reports directly to the Board of Regents and UC president.
Then, Dr. Arno Mundt, the founding chair of UCSD’s radiation department, took the stand.
Murphy has accused Mundt, his former boss, of spreading rumors about him and wrongfully convincing him to go to a part-time contractor position with the goal of ending his employment at the university.
While testifying, Mundt got into heated exchanges with Murphy’s attorney, interrupting his questions and accusing him of mischaracterizing previous statements. Mundt stood by his actions and said he did not retaliate against Murphy, a former student of his at the University of Chicago and someone Mundt has grown close to over the past two decades.
“I still consider him a friend today,” Mundt said about Murphy.
Mundt went on to testify that Murphy’s solicitation of the $10 million donation from a patient of his — philanthropist Charles Kreutzkamp — was “so wrong” and “never, never” appropriate, because it can interfere with the doctor-patient relationship.
“It made my skin crawl,” Mundt said, adding: “It corrupts the whole system.”
Outside the courtroom last week, UC’s lead counsel, Robert Eassa of Duane Morris, declined to comment on the trial. So did Murphy’s attorney, Mark Quigley from Greene Broillet & Wheeler. All together, nine attorneys are involved in the complicated legal proceedings.
Murphy also declined to comment. He has previously denied engaging in any misconduct.
Issues at trial
inewsource’s reporting into Murphy is expected to play a key role in the upcoming weeks of trial.
The doctor claims the UC system leaked reporters a summary of findings from an investigation into him, causing harm to his reputation.
In depositions, Murphy’s attorneys have attempted to track down who authorized sending the findings to inewsource and gotten conflicting answers, court records show.
Kim Kennedy, the chief communications officer for UC San Diego Health at the time of the reporting, said in her deposition that the university chancellor, Khosla, approved the media release himself. Other employees said Khosla was not involved, claiming it was either Khosla’s chief of staff or another UC department that approved the release.
Despite attempts by UC attorneys to block it, Khosla was deposed in March. The contents of the deposition have not been made public.
Murphy claims the news reporting has resulted in “catastrophic financial and reputational consequences” for him, including the loss of investors, contracts and clients for his PrTMS businesses.
Clinics using Murphy’s PrTMS treatment are now operating in 11 states, according to a company website.
The UC system is seeking restitution, civil penalties and $9.7 million in damages from Murphy and his private companies.
Murphy, in turn, is claiming he is owed $6 million to $10 million in lost wages resulting from whistleblower retaliation.
The witness list for the trial includes Khosla and other top university officials: David Brenner, former UCSD vice chancellor for health sciences, Jeff Graham, executive director for university real estate, and Jean Ford Keane, a former associate vice chancellor who filed a separate high-profile lawsuit against the UC system in 2020 over discrimination and retaliation.
Another name on the list is Johnathan Surmont, Murphy’s former patient. The story of his life, PrTMS treatments and psychotic episode was featured in inewsource’s “Rewired” investigation and documentary.
Murphy’s attorneys are continuing to call witnesses this week.
Type of Content
News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.