Friday, May 11, 2007

Penalized researcher retires - Still on NIH payroll for months after drug company collusion confronted

http://www.latimes.com/features/health/medicine/la-na-nih9may09,1,3051769.story?coll=la-health-medicine

Penalized researcher retires

The psychiatrist came to symbolize improper NIH ties to drug firms. He had pleaded guilty to a conflict charge.
By David Willman, Times Staff Writer
May 9, 2007

WASHINGTON — A senior researcher at the National Institutes of Health, who became a symbol of the agency's improper entanglements with drug companies and whose lasting presence on the federal payroll enraged members of Congress, has retired from the government.

Dr. P. "Trey" Sunderland III accepted about $612,000 in consulting and speaking fees from Pfizer Inc. and about $200,000 from other companies from 1998 to 2004, all without getting required approvals in advance from the NIH. He pleaded guilty five months ago to a federal conflict-of-interest charge and agreed to pay $300,000 to the government and to perform community service.

Word of Sunderland's retirement surfaced in a probation report filed Thursday with a U.S. District Court in Baltimore. The probation officer, Rasheed J. Tahir, wrote that Sunderland "is now privately practicing psychiatry."

Sunderland has paid the government about one-third of the $300,000 in restitution and performed three-fourths of his required community service, the report said. Sunderland, 55, a psychiatrist who specialized in researching Alzheimer's disease, had remained on the federal payroll through March. His case was among scores that prompted a sweeping ban of drug-company consulting fees and other industry compensation to NIH employees.

The ban, which was ordered in 2005 by the director of the NIH, was fought by many scientists at the agency who wanted the income from the drug companies.

The timing of the ban is of renewed relevance for Sunderland: He told colleagues at a national psychiatric research conference in December 2006 that he was a consultant to Pfizer and another drug-maker, AstraZeneca. Conference materials also show that Sunderland reported that he had received honoraria, typically fees for speaking or making appearances, from Pfizer, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Janssen Pharmaceuticals.

Reached by telephone at the NIH headquarters in Bethesda, Md., Deputy Director Raynard S. Kington declined to say whether the agency had granted Sunderland special permission to accept compensation from any of the four drug companies.

Sunderland's lawyer, Robert F. Muse, declined comment on his client's disclosures at the December conference. He also declined to discuss terms of Sunderland's discharge and retirement.

Three of the four drug companies listed by Sunderland in December had no comment. A spokeswoman for Pfizer, Liz Powers, said: "Sunderland was, at one time, a consultant to Pfizer Inc. He is not currently a consultant."

Sunderland's retirement ended an inquiry by the U.S. Commissioned Corps, the uniformed branch of the Public Health Service of which he had been a member since arriving at the NIH in 1982.

The official who oversees the Commissioned Corps, Adm. John O. Agwunobi, referred inquiries to an aide, who declined to say whether Sunderland had been granted an honorable discharge with full federal retirement benefits.

While accepting the earlier fees from Pfizer, Sunderland had collaborated with the company in his official role. From 1998 to 2003, he and his staff collected samples of spinal fluid from patients at the NIH's Clinical Center, in Bethesda.

Under terms of an agreement between the NIH and Pfizer, Sunderland then provided the samples to the drug company for its analysis and use in seeking clues that might develop a treatment for Alzheimer's disease.

Members of Congress had questioned months ago why the NIH had allowed Sunderland to remain on the federal payroll long after it was first established, in mid-2004, that he had flouted the agency's rules.

At congressional hearings last year, Sunderland's superiors at the NIH's mental-health institute said they were powerless to act against him because he belonged to the Commissioned Corps. Agwunobi told the House Energy and Commerce Committee's investigations subcommittee in September that his staff needed to gather more information.

The then-chairman of the full committee, Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas), called the NIH "an ethical Potemkin village, where a hollow system appears to provide the illusion of integrity, but transgressors never leave."

Regarding Sunderland, Barton told Agwunobi: "You're sitting on your bottom, and you're not doing anything about it. It's a farce."

 

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