Scientist charged in ethics case

NIH researcher accused of taking fees from drugmaker improperly

December 05, 2006|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

A senior government scientist working in Alzheimer's disease research was charged by federal prosecutors yesterday with accepting $285,000 in consulting fees and travel expenses from the world's largest drug manufacturer without proper approval from his bosses.

The criminal case emerged as a rare example of a top leader in the sciences being accused of breaking the law over a breach of professional ethics.

Leaders at the National Institutes of Health and their overseers in Congress have described the private financial arrangements between drug companies and publicly employed scientists as the worst scandal in the history of the agency.

Pearson "Trey" Sunderland III, chief of the geriatric psychiatry branch of the National Institute of Mental Health, which is part of the NIH, was charged yesterday with conflict of interest. He is accused of accepting payments from Pfizer Inc. without authorization from his superiors and ethics watchdogs. The misdemeanor charge was filed by criminal information instead of by indictment, which usually signals that a guilty plea is expected.

If convicted in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, the 55-year- old scientist from Chevy Chase could be sentenced to up to one year in prison and fined up to $100,000. He is scheduled to make his first court appearance Friday.

His attorney, Robert F. Muse, declined to comment yesterday.

Arthur Caplan, chairman of the medical ethics department at the University of Pennsylvania, called the case "unbelievable. It's just staggering news that will have an enormous ripple effect."

In October, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Lester M. Crawford pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges, admitting that he lied about owning stock and options in companies regulated by the agency.

This fall, the Los Angeles Times reported that an internal agency review had found that Dr. Thomas J. Walsh, who has helped lead major clinical trials involving cancer patients at NIH, improperly received fees totaling $100,970 from pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies without prior disclosure. Walsh, who has not been charged by federal authorities, remains an agency employee.

NIH officials confirmed yesterday that more than 40 scientists at the agency are thought to have engaged in outside, fee-based relationships with private companies. Almost none of them were charged with crimes. Instead, officials said, the scientists were disciplined internally or retired from the agency.

A spokesman for Rep. Edward Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican who is chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, declined to comment on the charge against Sunderland.

Rep. John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who is expected to take over as chairman of the powerful energy committee in January, said the case raises questions about the management of the National Institutes of Health.

"Sunderland remained on the payroll for years after NIH was given information from this Committee about this conflict and while the Surgeon General sat on an NIH recommendation that he be removed," Dingell, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said in a statement. "Will a criminal conviction for conflict of interest be enough to get someone fired from NIH?"

Other committee officials said the criminal charge helped explain why Sunderland declined to testify before its investigative subcommittee this year.

"It looks like there was a reason that Dr. Sunderland took the Fifth when he came to testify before our committee, and that was because he'd done something wrong," Larry Neal, a spokesman for the energy committee, said in a statement.

Sunderland remains an employee of the National Institute of Mental Health, spokesman Don Ralbovsky said yesterday.

His continued employment baffled some members of Congress.

"Hopefully, this announcement will also clear the way for Dr. Sunderland's termination from the Commissioned Corps," Neal said in his statement. "That as of a few months ago he continued to collect his salary and travel to Hawaii and other locales on taxpayer-funded trips is a total betrayal of the public trust."

Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said that if Sunderland is not disciplined "even after criminal charges have been brought, we can only conclude that no one is being held accountable, the system is broke and the public trust has been violated."

In a congressional report released in July, Sunderland was accused of accepting more than $500,000 from Pfizer without obtaining required advance approval.

Federal prosecutors declined yesterday to explain the disparity between that accusation and the more limited scope of the federal charge, saying they would not comment beyond the allegations contained in court papers. A message left for a Pfizer spokeswoman was not returned yesterday.

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