By Matthew Dolan
December 9, 2006
Scientist made deal with drug firm
A senior government scientist originally from Baltimore pleaded guilty yesterday to accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in undisclosed fees from the same drug manufacturer whose public-private research collaboration he oversaw.
As part of his agreement with federal prosecutors, Pearson "Trey" Sunderland III, chief of the geriatric psychiatry branch of the National Institute of Mental Health, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, is expected to receive a sentence of two years' supervised probation and must forfeit $300,000 in illegal proceeds and reimbursements.
His ethical misdeeds came to light after a series of newspaper stories led to a congressional investigation into the federal government's premier collection of research centers based in Bethesda.
With proper disclosure and approval, NIH scientists are allowed to receive outside income. But the discovery of dozens of private financial arrangements between drug companies and publicly employed scientists has embarrassed the agency in recent years and led to yesterday's plea.
"This case is not a technical mistake," Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said at a news conference after Sunderland's plea. "This case is not an honest mistake."
The state's chief federal prosecutors said Sunderland "violated the fundamental rule" of being a government scientist who both oversaw a research partnership with an outside company and cut an outside deal to enrich himself on the same project.
Sunderland, whose father was the owner of Chesapeake Cadillac and a century-old carpet-cleaning firm, was charged Monday with conflict of interest. Yesterday, he admitted accepting payments from Pfizer Inc. without authorization from his superiors and ethics watchdogs.
According to the plea agreement, he must also complete 400 hours of community service.
"Essentially, it's not a civil settlement," said U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz before accepting the scientist's plea in a Baltimore courtroom. Motz accepted the plea but has final say over the sentence. Sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 22.
After the hearing, Sunderland declined to comment on the case through his lawyer, Robert F. Muse. The 55-year-old scientist, who lives in Chevy Chase, could have been sentenced to up to one year in prison if convicted at trial.
NIH officials have said that more than 40 scientists at the agency are thought to have engaged in outside, fee-based relationships with private companies. Almost none of them were charged with crimes. Instead, officials said, the scientists were disciplined internally or retired from the agency.
Rosenstein declined to say whether he planned to prosecute other scientists on similar charges.
Congressional leaders have said the case raises fundamental questions about the management of the National Institutes of Health, founded in 1887 and considered one of the world's foremost medical research centers. The organization employs more than 18,000 people.
According to court papers filed by prosecutors, Sunderland was required under agency rules to disclose all income earned from outside activities and travel expenses exceeding $260 that were reimbursed by outside sources. In addition, before engaging in outside employment, Sunderland was required to file a form disclosing the name of the outside organization, the nature of the employment and any anticipated compensation.
In late 1997, representatives of Pfizer approached Sunderland about his agency joining a scientific collaboration. It was to involve researchers at Pfizer and NIH who were searching for Alzheimer's biomarkers, physical traits in the blood or cerebral spinal fluid indicating the presence and progress of the disease.
Prosecutors said that Sunderland joined the collaboration but did not tell his bosses that he cut a side deal for personal payments from Pfizer on the same project.
During his five years as a consultant, Pfizer paid Sunderland $125,000 in retainer fees, $35,000 to attend company meetings and additional money for related travel expenses, court documents show. Sunderland did not disclose to his supervisors at the National Institute of Mental Health the nature of his work and compensation from Pfizer.