NIH Scientists Broke Rules, Panel Says
Deals With Companies Went Unreported, Probe of Potential Conflicts of Interest Finds
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2004; Page A19
Researchers at the National Institutes of Health violated federal rules by engaging in lucrative collaborations with pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies and not reporting those arrangements to ethics officials as required, according to documents released yesterday as part of an escalating congressional investigation into conflicts of interest at the agency.
The House oversight subcommittee had already identified several instances in which scientists engaged in outside activities that posed at least the appearance of a conflict of interest. But in those cases the arrangements had been approved by top legal and ethics officials. Now, NIH officials said, disciplinary actions may be needed.
Testimony yesterday also provided evidence that Lance A. Liotta, a researcher at the National Cancer Institute, continued to receive thousands of dollars in compensation from one such business arrangement through May, despite his testimony under oath last month that he had suspended the collaboration months before.
The subcommittee said Liotta and others used their government computer systems to exchange e-mails relating to their private consultancies, supporting some lawmakers' contention that some government scientists have been illegally using federal resources for personal gain.
It remains to be seen how many of the subcommittee's allegations will stand up to closer scrutiny as bona fide breaches of ethics rules. Many details of the cases were still missing as of yesterday, and key individuals could not be reached to comment after the hard-hitting six-hour hearing came to a close.
But having learned of some of the new findings late last week, NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni came before the subcommittee yesterday with proposed revisions to NIH ethics rules more severe than those he had recommended a month earlier.
"I have reached the conclusion that drastic changes are needed," he said.
The new allegations emerged as part of the panel's expanding investigation into government employees' consulting deals with private companies. Although House members began by focusing on NIH, where top scientists' spare time is in great demand by drug companies wishing to capitalize on their expertise, they widened their probe last week to include 15 other federal agencies. In letters sent to agency heads, the subcommittee chairman, James C. Greenwood (R-Pa.), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.) asked that records of all such collaborations be provided to them by July 2.
Yesterday's surprise disclosure that many NIH scientists may be engaging in outside deals without the required agency reviews and approvals grew from inquiries Greenwood made to 20 pharmaceutical companies.
Given the lack of a centralized NIH database of all agency scientists' outside collaborations, Greenwood went directly to the companies, asking them to reveal all the arrangements they had.
Of the 264 arrangements the companies reported, Greenwood said, "about 100" were apparently unknown to NIH officials.
That sampling has Congress wondering, "What else is out there?," said Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.).
In one example detailed by Greenwood, drug giant Pfizer Inc. reported that Trey Sunderland, a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, was paid $517,000 in fees, honoraria and expense reimbursements related to consulting arrangements with the company over the past five years. Greenwood said the information was not on Sunderland's financial disclosure reports as required by federal ethics rules.
An NIH official said Sunderland was traveling abroad and could not be contacted.
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