NIH Scientist Pleads Guilty in Accepting $285,000 from Pfizer

By Eric Rich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 9, 2006

A senior government scientist who was a focus of a congressional probe into conflicts of interest in medical research admitted in federal court yesterday that he improperly failed to disclose payments of $285,000 he received as a consultant for the pharmaceutical manufacturer Pfizer Inc.

Pearson "Trey" Sunderland III, who was chief of the Geriatric Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health, pleaded guilty in Baltimore to a misdemeanor charge of violating conflict-of-interest rules.

Under the terms of the plea agreement, the Chevy Chase resident must forfeit $300,000 -- the payments plus expenses for which he was reimbursed. At the Dec. 22 sentencing, prosecutors have said that they will recommend that he be placed on probation for two years.

Sunderland, 55, admitted to entering consulting agreements with the drugmaker beginning in 1998 without receiving the required approval in advance or disclosing his income after the fact. Sunderland was paid as a consultant on two projects in which his department was collaborating with Pfizer on research to identify chemical warning signs of Alzheimer's disease.

The criminal prosecution of a researcher for violating conflict-of-interest rules is a rarity. But Sunderland's consulting arrangements, which first surfaced in 2004, were among the most egregious of the possible conflicts detailed during the probe by a congressional subcommittee.

U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said the case should send a message to other government researchers. "Dr. Sunderland violated the fundamental rule that government employees cannot accept payment from interested private parties without the permission of their supervisors," Rosenstein said in a statement.

But members of Congress said yesterday that they found it disturbing that even after his guilty plea, Sunderland remains in his federal job, where he is a member of the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.

"The question now becomes: Will the National Institutes of Health and the Commissioned Corps finally move to terminate Dr. Sunderland's assignment?" Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) asked in a statement. "Is a criminal guilty plea enough to, at long last, remove Dr. Sunderland from NIH?"

NIH spokesman Don Ralbovsky and Robert F. Muse, an attorney for Sunderland, declined to comment.

According to court documents, Sunderland initiated discussions with Pfizer in 1998 that led to his being paid as a consultant on a collaborative project involving Pfizer and NIMH. He was ultimately paid a $25,000 retainer each year for five years as well as $35,000 to attend 14 meetings at Pfizer locations. He negotiated similar terms later in 1998 as a consultant on a second effort.

In neither case did he disclose the income in annual reports, nor did he receive approval in advance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as required.

Adil E. Shamoo, founder and editor-in-chief of the journal Accountability in Research, which deals extensively with medical ethics, said he considered probation and the forfeiture to be appropriate punishment for Sunderland's misconduct.

"Pleading guilty in a court of law, a man of his caliber as a researcher -- it's really disappointing, and hopefully it will be a deterrent," Shamoo said. "It should be very embarrassing to him."

As a result of concerns over possible conflicts of interest, NIH officials began administrative actions against 34 scientists and referred 10 others, including Sunderland, to the Office of the Inspector General for possible prosecution. In August 2005, the NIH imposed rules that bar employees from working for, or owning stock in, drug companies.

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