Dec 22, 2006 12:22 PM (2 hrs 54 mins ago)
Pearson "Trey" Sunderland III, a prominent Alzheimer's expert who ran a geriatric research unit at the National Institute of Mental Health, pleaded guilty earlier this month to a misdemeanor conflict of interest charge. Sunderland admitted he shared thousands of NIH human tissue samples with Pfizer at the same time he was paid as a private consultant. Many of the samples are highly sought-after in Alzheimer's research.
Sunderland told U.S. District Judge Frederick Motz at his sentencing he didn't have a good explanation for his actions.
"I cannot tell you why except to say this is not part of my normal character," Sunderland said.
However, the researcher acknowledged the case had harmed the "trust I had generated with both patients and colleagues."
The conditions of the sentence conformed to those specified in Sunderland's plea agreement, except for an unspecified fine that could have been as much as $100,000. Motz said the forfeiture, to be paid in stages without interest, was adequate and did not impose a fine.
Prosecutors said Sunderland failed to get prior approval for consulting work that related to his federal research, and did not properly report the fees and travel expenses from Pfizer.
Before sentencing prosecutor Martin Clarke told the judge the work with Pfizer was not a "boondoggle created simply for him to personally profit from," noting the work was "very significant and important research" that had the support of fellow researchers and patients.
Clarke said afterward that he did not mean to suggest the best science was conducted despite the conflict of interest.
Clarke also told Motz before sentencing that prosecutors did not find any evidence of a "quid pro quo," or a tit-for-tat exchange of samples for consulting work. U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein also said after Sunderland entered his plea earlier this month that there was no evidence that giving Sunderland the consulting work helped Pfizer get the samples.
Prosecutors have said they hoped Sunderland's case will send a message to other government scientists. However, the plea deal prompted one study volunteer to write a letter to The Washington Post decrying the leniency of the agreement.
Ann Zuvekas, of Annandale, Va., said she was one of the healthy volunteers in Alzheimer's studies "who gave our time and our tissue because we had watched loved ones suffer and die from this dread disease," only to have the samples "passed on without the volunteers' knowledge or permission for personal and corporate gain."
"While he was illegally accepting Pfizer's money, Mr. Sunderland was making pious statements about how, unlike bureaucrats and health policymakers, he was devoted to the cause of "pure" science," Zuvekas wrote in the letter. "Meanwhile, he's still on the taxpayers' payroll."
The case is believed to be the first conflict-of-interest prosecution against a federal scientist since 1992, when NIH researcher Prem Sarin was convicted of embezzling a drug company payment to the agency that was intended to help with AIDS research. Sarim was ordered to pay $25,000 and two months community service.
The Sunderland case is part of an ethics controversy that prompted the nation's premier medical research agency to issue new consulting restrictions last year.
The conflict began in 1998 when Sunderland was arranging for NIH to work with Pfizer on an Alzheimer's project. At the same time, he began negotiations to be a paid consultant on the same project, prosecutors alleged. Government scientists are not allowed to take money for their official collaborations with private companies.
The NIH has so far identified at least 44 government researchers who were improperly paid for working on the side for biotechnology and drug companies. Most have been given written or verbal reprimands or were permitted to retire.
Sunderland - who refused to testify before Congress last June, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination - remains on the government payroll although he asked to retire after House investigators began unraveling his fincial ties with Pfizer two years ago.
NIH spokesman Don Ralbovsky said after Sunderland's plea hearing that the researcher remains an NIMH employee, but added that he could not comment on whether the guilty plea would affect his job.