WASHINGTON — Federal prosecutors on Monday charged a senior scientist at the National Institutes of Health with conflict of interest for taking $285,000 in fees from a drug company that was involved with his government research.
Dr. P. Trey Sunderland III is the first official in 14 years to be prosecuted for conflict of interest at the NIH, an agency rocked in recent years by revelations of widespread financial ties to the drug industry. Sunderland accepted the fees from 1998 to 2003 from Pfizer Inc.
Sunderland, who has headed the NIH's geriatric psychiatry branch, is scheduled to appear Friday in a federal courtroom in Baltimore, according to the office of U.S. Atty. Rod J. Rosenstein.
Sunderland is expected to plead guilty to the single charge, said lawyers familiar with the case, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of confidentiality concerns. The scientist, 55, could get up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
Sunderland's lawyer, Robert F. Muse, declined to comment Monday.
In an eight-page filing, prosecutors said Sunderland took money from Pfizer without getting the required advance permission from the NIH.
The services he performed for the company -- including providing hundreds of spinal-tap samples prized for potential genetic clues that might help develop a treatment for Alzheimer's disease -- were intertwined with his government duties.
And Sunderland failed to note his company fees and additional expense reimbursements on annual NIH financial reports.
Federal law prohibits officials from accepting outside compensation for their government duties.
In Sunderland's case, he spearheaded a "material transfer agreement" on behalf of the NIH, whereby his staff would collect and then pass the spinal-tap samples to Pfizer.
About the same time, in early 1998, "Sunderland initiated negotiations with Pfizer to be paid as a consultant for his work on the same project," according to the criminal filing.
As a member of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps -- the uniformed service led by the U.S. surgeon general -- Sunderland has been shielded from termination or other disciplinary measures by the NIH.
His unusual status, and that of other similarly situated senior NIH researchers, has been criticized by members of Congress, who have questioned whether supervision is adequate.
Sunderland appeared at a congressional hearing June 14 but did not testify, asserting his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination. The hearing focused on the NIH response to the unauthorized drug company fees accepted by Sunderland and one of his research assistants.
The announcement of Sunderland's prosecution prompted some lawmakers to call for his firing.
"If the National Institutes of Health and Commissioned Corps fail to discipline Dr. Sunderland, even after criminal charges have been brought, we can only conclude that no one is being held accountable, the system is broken and the public trust has been violated," said Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.).
Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), who will take over in January as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, asked: "Will a criminal conviction for conflict of interest be enough to get someone fired from NIH?"
In Bethesda, Md., NIH spokesman Donald Ralbovsky said Monday that the agency would not comment on the charge against Sunderland "because it's a pending personnel matter."
Sunderland's prosecution builds on events over the last several years: After the Los Angeles Times reported in December 2003 that ranking NIH officials had received hundreds of company consulting payments, grants of stock or stock options, the House Energy and Commerce Committee asked the agency to disclose all such transactions over the previous five years. When the NIH did not promptly respond, lawmakers acquired information from 21 drug companies.
The companies' responses identified scores of NIH researchers who were not previously known to have received certain payments. These included the fees Pfizer paid Sunderland.
After examining the Sunderland case internally, NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni requested nearly two years ago that the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services investigate it further.
The last NIH scientist to be prosecuted and convicted for a conflict of interest was an AIDS researcher, Prem S. Sarin. He was ordered in 1992 to repay a German pharmaceutical company $25,000 and was sentenced to two months of community service.
The NIH is composed of 27 research institutes and centers, and it operates the largest hospital in the nation for experiment medical research. The agency, whose budget last year was $28.5 billion, has some 18,000 employees, about 5,000 of whom lead or conduct research.