Senior NIH researcher pleads guilty

Federal prosecutors may now set sights on another senior scientist for alleged ethics violations

Dec 11, 2006
Ted Agres
Pearson "Trey" Sunderland III, former chief of the Geriatric Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute of Mental Health, pleaded guilty Friday (Dec. 8) to violating federal conflict of interest laws in connection with unapproved consulting for Pfizer Inc. It was the first criminal conviction emerging from more than two years of investigations by Congress and other government agencies into financial conflicts of interest at the National Institutes of Health.Sunderland, 55, faces up to a year in prison and $100,000 in fines from the single misdemeanor charge, but prosecutors have agreed to a plea bargain in which he would escape jail time and receive two years supervised probation, forfeit $300,000 in consulting fees and other outside income, perform 400 hours of community service, and pay a fine to be determined by the court. Sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 22."Dr. Sunderland violated the fundamental rule that government employees cannot accept payment from interested private parties without the permission of their supervisors," U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in a statement Friday. Sunderland's consulting for Pfizer began in 1998 and continued through 2003. He neither requested permission from the NIH nor reported the personal income on annual financial reports. In February 2005, the NIH tightened the rules and banned all consulting. Another senior researcher, Thomas J. Walsh, head of the Pediatric Oncology Branch at the National Cancer Institute, may be of increased interest to federal prosecutors now that Sunderland's case has been concluded, a government source said. Walsh engaged in "serious misconduct" by accepting more than $100,000 in consulting fees from drug and biotech companies, according to an internal NIH document obtained by the Los Angeles Times. He accepted fees from 25 companies and has led government-sponsored research involving some of those companies' drugs, according to the document.Vicki E. LeDuc, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Baltimore, told The Scientist she could neither confirm nor deny that prosecutors planned to pursue criminal action against the researcher. Walsh did not respond to a request for comment, but has previously denied wrongdoing. "We have not heard anything from prosecutors," his attorney, H. Bradford Glassman, told The Scientist on Friday. In his plea agreement, Sunderland admitted to having accepted $300,000 in payments from Pfizer over five years in connection with his Alzheimer's biomarker research. He also admitted to giving Pfizer approximately 800 tubes of cerebrospinal fluid samples previously collected from National Institute of Mental Health research subjects. Sunderland actually received more than $600,000 in fees from Pfizer without prior disclosure or approval and improperly transferred 3,200 vials of human spinal fluid and 388 tubes of plasma collected from more than 500 Alzheimer's patients and their families, according to a report released in June by the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Neither the additional payments nor sample transfers were part of the Justice Department's case. Sunderland "received honoraria for consulting and educational activities that were reasonable and customary for an expert of his stature and expertise," Pfizer spokesman Stephen F. Lederer told The Scientist in an email. "We believe our actions complied with applicable laws and ethical standards. We are not aware of any allegation that we violated any law or regulation." Sunderland and Walsh are both members of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, the uniformed service led by the surgeon general. As such, they are shielded from NIH termination or disciplinary measures. Sunderland asked to retire from the NIH two years ago, but the Corps refused to grant his request while criminal and other investigations were underway. Corps spokesperson Christina Pearson declined to discuss Sunderland or Walsh's employment status. "We're concerned whenever allegations are made and take them seriously," she told The Scientist on Friday. "But we are not able to provide any details because they are personnel matters." The Geriatric Psychiatry Branch at the National Institute of Mental Health has been disbanded, and Sunderland currently works in a grants administration office. NIH spokesman Don Ralbovsky refused to discuss Sunderland's status, saying it was "still a pending personnel matter." "Hopefully [the criminal charges] will also clear the way for Dr. Sunderland's termination from the Commissioned Corps," Larry Neal, spokesman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a statement. "That as of a few months ago he continued to collect his salary and travel to Hawaii and other locales on taxpayer-funded trips is a total betrayal of the public trust."Ted Agres tagres@the-scientist.comLinks within this article:18 U.S.C. 208(a) "Trey" Sunderland III Attorney statement http://usaomd.blogspot.comT. Agres, "NIH bans all consulting," The Scientist, Feb. 2, 2005 J. Walsh's biomarker research Agres, "Senior NIH scientist faulted," The Scientist, June 14, 2006