`Humbled' scientist is put on probation

NIH's Sunderland got funds from Pfizer

December 23, 2006|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

A leading government Alzheimer's researcher told a federal judge in Baltimore yesterday that he had no good explanation for why he improperly accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in undisclosed fees from a drug manufacturer while helping to control government-sponsored research with the same company.

Before the judge imposed the agreed-upon sentence of two years of probation, 400 hours of community service and a restitution payment of $300,000, Pearson "Trey" Sunderland III, chief of the geriatric psychiatry branch of the National Institute of Mental Health, said the conviction "humbled me in a way I've never experienced before."

Sunderland spoke calmly and read from prepared notes, apologizing to his colleagues, patients, friends and family members. He was nervous, he said, in large part because he was confessing his misdeed in front of his son, who sat in the back row of the courtroom.

"I cannot tell you why, except to say that it's not a part of my regular character," Sunderland said, referring to the undisclosed payments he received from the drug giant Pfizer Inc.

His crime at the National Institutes of Health, the parent organization for the mental health institute, had rocked the federal government's premier collection of research centers based in Bethesda, where as many as 40 scientists have been reprimanded for ethical breaches.

A spokesman at NIH yesterday said Sunderland remains an employee, but he added that "appropriate action" had been taken. No details were provided.

Compensation from private companies for government research is not always forbidden. With proper disclosure and approval, NIH scientists can accept lecture fees, for example. Assistant U.S. Attorney Martin Clarke told U.S. District Court J. Frederick Motz that much of what Sunderland accepted might not have been ethical, but was not a crime.

"Our focus was very narrow," Clarke said, adding, "we thought it was important that he be held accountable."

In deciding to prosecute Sunderland for what many scientists have only lost their jobs over, Clarke said his office was swayed by the fact that Sunderland was a supervisor inside the government research center. His improper relationship with Pfizer was of a "long-standing nature," added Clarke.

But Sunderland may have escaped a more serious felony charge because government prosecutors also concluded that his relationship with Pfizer was not a quid pro quo where, for example, Sunderland might have changed his research to meet Pfizer's requests. The public-private research collaboration, according to Clarke, was a legitimate one and not some scientific boondoggle.

After an investigation lasting almost three years, Sunderland's case in federal court raced to sentencing yesterday. He was charged with conflict of interest, a misdemeanor, on Dec. 4 and pleaded guilty four days later. His sentencing hearing yesterday lasted barely 15 minutes.

As part of his plea, he admitted accepting payments from Pfizer without authorization from his superiors and ethics watchdogs. The 55-year-old scientist, who lives in Chevy Chase, could have been sentenced to up to one year in prison if convicted at trial.

According to court papers filed by prosecutors, Sunderland was required under agency rules to disclose all income earned from outside activities and travel expenses exceeding $260 that were reimbursed by outside sources.

In late 1997, representatives of Pfizer approached Sunderland about his agency joining a scientific collaboration. It was to involve researchers at Pfizer and NIH who were searching for ways to detect the presence and progression of Alzheimer's, a neurodegenerative disease.

Prosecutors said that Sunderland joined the collaboration but did not tell his bosses that he cut a side deal for personal payments from Pfizer on the same project.

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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