Former Mayo Clinic professor Jan van Deursen and his mentee Bennett Childs are not happy about my reporting, in particular my quoting of their former colleagues. So they engaged German lawyers to issue two cease-and-desist letters, attached to them a hefty bill for €3000 legal costs, with implied demand for damage compensation, and of course with a threat to go to court.
The self-proclaimed pensioner van Deursen disagrees with his former lab members who accused him of bullying, misogyny and racist behaviour. And what better way to prove to the world that you are never a bully or a racist than to engage the German law firm Hoecker, which specialises on threatening journalists and whose most prominent client is the infamous German far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). They even warned a member of German Bundestag not to call the AfD a “political arm of the right-wing terrorism”. The lawfirm’s owner Ralf Hoecker (who likes to say: “It’s OK to threaten journalists!”) recently resigned from political activities citing some obscure threats. Threats, for which the German police and state prosecutor found no evidence whatsoever. The threats which Hoecker however distributes against journalists, are very real, and for me it is already the third time. Third and fourth actually, because Hoecker Lawyers now threaten TWO libel lawsuits: one from Jan Van Deursen and one from his postdoc Bennett Childs.
Important point: van Deursen openly admits in the Hoecker letter not to work at the Mayo Clinic anymore. The high-ranking cancer and ageing researcher and businessman claims to have resigned as pensioner (German verbatim: “Pensionierung”, “in den Ruhestand”) on 24 July 2020, voluntarily. He offers no proof of that, certainly no documents from the Mayo Clinic. But with this statement, van Deursen admits to have left science and employment completely. Which kind of fits, even the pensioner’s own company Unity Biotechnology told a Rochester journalist that they do not employ their founder.
Update 27.07.2020: As I was informed, the pensioner van Deursen was born in April 1963, for which the legal retirement age in Minnesota is 67. This means the Mayo professor resigned into what he calls “retirement” ten years too early, aged merely 57. Which also means his senolytics drugs must work backwards! And did van Deursen show this Mayo Clinic memo from February 2020 to his lawyers?
The author of both cease-and-desist letters is the Hoecker lawyer Lucas Brost, who routinely puts “It’s OK to threaten journalists!” into practice. In October 2015, Brost warned me in a letter never to write anything negative about Hoecker client, the former cancer researcher Tina Wenz. A year ago, Brost issued an Order to Delete an article about the neuroscience professor Katrin Amunts, who is also scientific director of the Human Brain Project.
Will this be the time Hoecker Lawyers finally get to sentence me in court? Well, the rules have slightly changed in Germany since I was last sentenced in Paolo Macchiarini case: courts are not allowed anymore to issue injunctions behind journalists’ backs, after a decision of the Federal Constitutional Court in late 2018. With the new decision, a journalist must be heard first, in a hearing or at least via a written submission. This is why I replied immediatedly, with two long statements rejecting Hoecker Law baseless demands and claims. My statements (in German) can be shared with you upon request.
One important point is: both van Deursen and Childs are US citizens and residents of Rochester, Minnesota. They have exactly zero connection to Germany and should not be able to claim any interest or damage here. They certainly should never succeed in court and prevent their colleagues from talking to talk to press about their behaviour or their research.
All these quotes which Hoecker Lawyers declare as libellous were provided by sources whose identity is known to me and has been verified. One source has now even published her own guest post on my site, signed: Robin Ricke. She also spoke to Post Bulletin, who also independently verified other sources among van Deursen’s past and present lab members. The newspaper also received a statement from the Mayo Clinic, which contains this telling part:
“Mayo Clinic is committed to providing a safe work and learning environment that is free of harassment, bullying, discrimination, and disrespectful behavior…. Mayo Clinic’s commitment to safety also includes meeting applicable reporting obligations with governmental and regulatory agencies, including the National Institutes of Health.”
Which basically means, Mayo Clinic has notified NIH about van Deursen’s departure over his creating a toxic work environment. Grant money will likely be cancelled or even paid back. Not many academic pensioners resign with at least a dozen of running NIH grants, some awarded just in 2020.
So much for van Deursen’s and Hoecker Lawyers claim that the resignation was utterly voluntarily and that the anonymous sources reporting bullying and discrimination are all slanderous.
The cease-and-desist letters are available for download here:
It is bizarre that van Deursen cries slander and protests that he never tried to coerce pregnant women not to take their full maternity leave of 12 weeks, to which they are legally entitled. Not only am I in touch with the exactly same female lab member whose pregnancy provoked van Deursen into bullying and apparently set off the Mayo investigation, Robin Ricke narrates on my site how she herself was in a very similar situation only a couple of years before!
What van Deursen’s favourite postdoc, Bennett Childs, denounces as slander in his own legal action, is completely beyond comprehension. He protests against being presented as disloyal to van Deursen and in particular my referring to his own comment on my site where he protested about a photo of him and van Deursen being used. It makes no sense at all, I can’t even try to explain it.
Childs’ other point is, in which he is joined by van Deursen: opinions by former lab members I quoted are slanderous because that colleagues complain about their research being not reproducible. I pointed Childs and van Deursen as well as Hoecker Lawyers towards a 2017 white paper by the German Research Council (DFG), which clearly and repeatedly states that non-reproducibility of science is neither something bad nor accusatory, and certainly not an evidence of any bad scientific practice. For all we know, van Deursen’s abysmal lab leadership style, bullying and favouritism simply prevented transfer of lab skills to other lab members (which Ricke also experienced). Over which van Deursen and Childs now both want to sue, in a German court!
Otherwise, van Deursen’s accusations of libel are based on his own perception of his own behaviour. So what if others felt bullied and discriminated in a sexist or racist way. He himself saw his approach as perfectly fair, thus everyone complaining commits slander. Another interesting bit is: while van Deursen’s cease-and-desist letter contains his signed authorization to Hoecker Lawyers to represent him, Childs’ letter contains no such attachment. Which makes one wonder who is really behind that other legal action.
One more point: van Deursen’s departure from the Mayo Clinic was likely regulated by a mutual agreement to keep quiet and not to reveal any details. But his present announcement to have resigned as pensioner on his own accord while pretending there were never any bullying charges and investigations, is most likely an actionable breach of this contract.
I am presently enjoying my vacation. van Deursen should enjoy his well-deserved retirement from science.
Post Bulletin brought a follow-up story today, it cites several sources to describe van Deursen’s excessive bullying, including against the pregnant student which his Hoecker Lawyers claim never happened. The article also mentions:
“When asked about the researcher’s status, Mayo Clinic’s Bob Nellis responded on Sunday with this statement: “We can tell you that Dr. van Deursen no longer is employed at Mayo Clinic. Beyond that we have no further comments.”
Seperate sources informed me and the Post Bulletin journalist Jeff Kiger that van Deursen (and Childs) planned to move to University of Texas San Antonio, but then again, it seems van Deursen chose to retire as pensioner after all.
Please also not this memo form Mayo Clinic from February 2020:
Hoecker Lawyers now seek two court injunctions against me. When I returned from vacation yesterday, I found my mailbox brimming full with court files. Now I do need a lawyer, because the court does not allow self-representation. There is no verdict or injunction yet, due to a change in German media law from late 2018. The court hearing is set on 1 September, but I am trying to postpone it. One reason: van Deursen and Childs left no safety deposit. Should they lose in court in full, the financial risk for them would be nil: Germany and USA have no agreements on legal debt enforcement.
PS: Here is a photo of Childs with van Deursen (right to left), from 2017 Mayo Clinic press release. Meanwhile van Deursen’s personal profile page and his online CV at Mayo were deleted (they were still there on 22 July 2020). This never happens when someone retires as pensioner.
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