One of the nation's leading AIDS researchers was convicted by a federal jury in Baltimore yesterday of embezzling money he received for AIDS testing.
Prem S. Sarin, 57, a former researcher and deputy chief at the National Cancer Institute's tumor cell biology lab in Bethesda, could receive a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a $750,000 fine. U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis scheduled sentencing Oct. 16.
The jury of nine women and three men deliberated for nearly four hours before returning guilty verdicts on one felony count of embezzlement and two felony counts of filing false statements against Sarin. The jury acquitted Sarin of a charge of conflict of interest.
In closing arguments yesterday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Dale P. Kelberman said Sarin illegally accepted $25,000 in early 1987 from a German biomedical firm, Homburg Degussa Pharma Groupe. The company wanted Sarin to determine whether its drug, D-Penicilamine, would be effective against the AIDS virus, according to testimony.
But, Mr. Kelberman said, Sarin hid from the government the fact that he had received the money by failing to fill out a conflict of interest document. He said Sarin never told the company that he would use the money for personal expenses and not for research.
He said the researcher signed the name of a Degussa official on a form that stated the company paid him only $4,500 for his consulting work.
Mr. Kelberman said Sarin deposited money he received from Degussa and other companies into new bank accounts. He said Sarin made withdrawals from the accounts in amounts ranging from $50 to $9,000, nearly depleting the funds.
"Degussa intended for this money to go to AIDS research, not to Dr. Sarin's pocket," the prosecutor said.
W. Neal Eggleston, Sarin's lawyer, countered during his closing argument that Sarin was charged with embezzling money from the German company, not the government, and that the firm was not concerned with how the money was spent.
Sarin, a Gaithersburg resident, has worked on an AIDS vaccine and was a colleague of Dr. Robert C. Gallo, the American scientist who has shared credit for discovering acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
He was fired from the institute in January 1991 in the wake of the investigation. He now is a researcher at George Washington University.
He testified Monday that he needed the money to hire other scientists and to pay for additional expenses. He said he finished the research for Degussa. He said he set up the bank accounts and used the money to pay educational costs for two sons. He said he borrowed the money and always had intended to replace it.
"In looking back, it was a dumb thing to do, and I'm sorry that a misconception or a misunderstanding has occurred over the years," Sarin told the jury.