NIH Punishments Criticized

Assistant Health and Human Services Secretary John Agwunobi testifies on Capitol Hill alongside National Institutes of Health  Deputy Director Raynard Kington, center, and National Cancer Institute chief John Niederhuber.
Assistant Health and Human Services Secretary John Agwunobi testifies on Capitol Hill alongside National Institutes of Health Deputy Director Raynard Kington, center, and National Cancer Institute chief John Niederhuber. (By Dennis Cook -- Associated Press)
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 14, 2006

Angry members of Congress took federal health officials to task yesterday for what they said was a pattern of being "soft" on government scientists found to have violated ethics rules.

One National Institutes of Health scientist is still on the job a year after the agency determined he had improperly accepted more than $700,000 in consulting fees -- and has taken recent trips to Switzerland and Hawaii on the government's tab -- lawmakers said at a hearing.

Another researcher is still at NIH after investigators found he had improperly accepted about $100,000 from more than 25 companies, members complained.

And although six NIH scientists deemed to have broken ethics rules left their jobs in the past year or so before disciplinary action could be taken, not one of the remaining 36 violators identified in an NIH-wide investigation was fired -- and most have endured punishment no more severe than a "letter of caution."

"I do recognize that NIH has taken needed steps to improve its ethics program," said Rep. Edward Whitfield (R-Ky.), chairman of the subcommittee on oversight and investigations, which for years has been dogging NIH over alleged ethics violations. "But more action is needed."

Agency officials denied that they have been less than rigorous in meting out punishment to those who broke the rules that once governed such arrangements. NIH banned all outside consulting with drug and biotech companies more than a year ago, when it became clear that a few dozen had not reported their arrangements as required.

NIH Deputy Director Raynard Kington said that at the conclusion of its investigation, NIH began administrative actions against 34 scientists and referred 10 others to the Office of Inspector General for possible prosecution. That office decided to pursue only two -- Alzheimer's disease researcher Trey Sunderland and cancer researcher Thomas Walsh.

But while NIH officials long ago expressed a desire to fire those two, neither the inspector general nor NIH has the power to do so because both scientists are members of the Public Health Service's Commissioned Corps. The corps' disciplinary rules -- including the right to a formal corps hearing -- trump NIH's.

Sunderland's corps hearing has been delayed indefinitely at the request of the Justice Department, which is considering criminal charges, according to testimony yesterday by John O. Agwunobi, assistant secretary for health. Walsh's hearing has been delayed because it was awaiting completion of Sunderland's. Last week the corps decided to bump Walsh's case ahead of Sunderland's and began to organize a hearing for him, Agwunobi said.

Meanwhile, both researchers have continued to work at NIH, with travel and other job restrictions imposed only recently in the wake of fresh congressional inquiries. So lax has oversight of Sunderland's activities been, legislators said, that NIH did not stop him from recently shipping -- at government expense -- personal belongings to a New York hospital where he had hoped to continue his research. Those belongings were returned to Bethesda after the lapse was detected, an NIH spokesman said, again at government expense.

Several members complained that the punishments doled out to violators were not tough enough. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) pointed to one case in which a researcher was found to have received nearly $475,000 without proper approval or disclosure and received a penalty of a 45-day suspension without pay.

"So where is the deterrent?" Stupak asked, calculating aloud to show that the scientist still came out ahead financially. "What does it take to get an NIH scientist terminated?"

NIH officials responded that in some cases, including that one, punishment was less than might seem appropriate because although the researcher did not report the income properly, the outside work was found to have posed no conflict of interest and would have been approved under the rules in place then.

Undaunted, Stupak asked why federal scientists cannot maintain the same ethical standards as members of Congress. Often, he said, legislators get letters in the mail with a dollar bill inside to encourage them to reply. "Do you know what would happen to any of us," Stupak asked, "if we kept that dollar?"

© 2006 The Washington Post Company