NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH
U.S. Criminal Charges Filed Against Scientist
Tuesday, December 5, 2006
A top scientist at the National Institutes of Health whose alleged failure to disclose consulting contracts with a drug company helped set off a probe of possible ethical lapses by researchers was criminally charged yesterday with violating federal conflict-of-interest rules.
Pearson "Trey" Sunderland III, 55, who was chief of the Geriatric Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health, faces one misdemeanor count that could bring a year in prison and a $100,000 fine, federal prosecutors said. The charge was outlined yesterday in a document called a "criminal information" -- a signal that Sunderland had waived the usual grand jury indictment process, and that a plea agreement may be forthcoming.
In charging Sunderland, prosecutors alleged that he accepted $285,000 in consulting fees and other payments from the Pfizer Inc. drug company between 1997 and 2004. Sunderland, who lives in Chevy Chase, failed to list these payments on the required disclosure forms, prosecutors said.
At the time, Sunderland's department was working with Pfizer in research to identify chemical warning signs of Alzheimer's disease. As part of the research, Sunderland helped provide hundreds of government-owned tissue samples for analysis.
In August 2005, a year after Sunderland's case came to light, NIH imposed rules that bar employees from working for, or owning stock in, drug or biotech companies.
Sunderland's Washington attorney, Robert F. Muse, said yesterday he would have no comment on the case.
In previous interviews, Muse had said that Sunderland had made no efforts to conceal his outside work and that many NIH researchers had come to see the disclosure forms as "basically a bureaucratic nuisance." Sunderland himself invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when called to testify before a House of Representatives subcommittee in June.
Don Ralbovsky, a spokesman for the Bethesda-based NIH, said that Sunderland remains an employee and now works as a "special assistant and senior adviser" in a division that gives out grants. He said he could not comment on whether NIH is seeking to terminate him. The Geriatric Psychiatry Branch no longer exists, Ralbovsky said.
Sunderland's first hearing is scheduled for Friday morning in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
Both the size of the payments and the transfer of human tissue made Sunderland's one of the most infamous examples of apparently lax oversight at the health institutes. Congressional investigators found that 44 researchers had off-the-books relationships with drug and biotech companies.
"I found this story incredibly distressing because it is so important that people have confidence in the NIH," Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), who heard testimony about Sunderland at a subcommittee hearing this summer, said yesterday. "It is a pretty big move for people to donate human tissue to further scientific discovery. People have to have confidence that that decision . . . is treated with the utmost respect."
Charging documents filed yesterday by the Maryland U.S. attorney's office say Sunderland's involvement with Pfizer began less than a year after he became head of the branch in 1997.
The charging document provides this account:
In 1998, the institute, Pfizer and another company had agreed to work together on a project to find "biomarkers" of Alzheimer's in samples of cerebrospinal fluid provided by the government. Then, Sunderland signed his own side agreement: He would be paid $25,000 a year for consulting with Pfizer, plus a $2,500 fee every time he attended one-day meetings with the company.
The same year, a similar arrangement was set up when NIMH and Pfizer agreed to collaborate on a study of two "biomarkers" that were already believed to help identify Alzheimer's cases. Sunderland made his own deal, again without disclosing it to his bosses, to receive another $25,000 per year, prosecutors alleged.
In total, prosecutors said, Sunderland was paid $285,000, plus travel expenses. Though congressional investigators had previously said he had also violated rules by transferring the tissue samples, Sunderland was not charged with that yesterday.