NIH Scientist Charged With Conflict-of-Interest
Federal prosecutors on Monday charged NIH scientist Trey Sunderland with one misdemeanor count for violation of federal conflict-of-interest rules over his alleged acceptance of $285,000 in consulting fees and other payments from Pfizer and failure to disclose the agreement properly, the Washington Post reports (Fahrenthold, Washington Post, 12/5).
According to a report released in June at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Sunderland -- the former chief of the geriatric psychiatry brand at the National Institute of Mental Health -- provided Pfizer with more than 3,200 samples of spinal fluid and 388 tubes of plasma collected for Alzheimer's disease research.
Sunderland violated HHS ethics rules and federal laws, according to the report. The report estimates that NIH spent $6.4 million to collect the samples, which were donated by volunteers with Alzheimer's, relatives of Alzheimer's patients and individuals with normal risk for the disease.
The report states that "records and interviews provide reasonable grounds to believe" Sunderland "personally received $285,000 in compensation from Pfizer" in exchange for the samples (American Health Line, 6/15).
Prosecutors outlined the charge in a "criminal information" document, "a signal that Sunderland had waived the usual grand jury indictment process and that a plea agreement may be forthcoming" (Washington Post, 12/5). Sunderland, if convicted, could face a prison sentence of as long as one year and a fine of as much as $100,000, prosecutors said (Dolan, Baltimore Sun, 12/5).
According to the document, Pfizer from 1997 through 2004 paid Sunderland $285,000 in consulting fees for a project that studied biomarkers potentially linked with Alzheimer's. Prosecutors allege that Sunderland in 1998 improperly entered an agreement with Pfizer to advise the company on the study of biomarkers in spinal fluid samples provided by NIH.
The same year, NIMH and Pfizer entered a similar agreement to study biomarkers, and Sunderland entered a second agreement under which he received payments from the company, prosecutors allege (Washington Post, 12/5). "Sunderland initiated negotiations with Pfizer to be paid as a consultant for his work on the same project" as his NIH work, the document states (William, Los Angeles Times, 12/5).
Prosecutors allege that Sunderland violated NIH rules that require disclosure of any income earned from outside activities and for travel expenses exceeding $260 that are reimbursed by outside sources. Sunderland also failed to disclose to his supervisors the nature of his work and the payments he was receiving, prosecutors allege (Baltimore Sun, 12/5).
An arraignment hearing for Sunderland is scheduled for Friday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore (AP/Washington Times, 12/5).
Attorney Robert Muse, who represents Sunderland, declined to comment (Baltimore Sun, 12/5).
NIH spokesperson Don Ralbovsky said that Sunderland remains employed by the agency as an adviser in a division that awards grants (Washington Post, 12/5).
NIH cannot fire Sunderland because he is a member of the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps (Los Angeles Times, 12/5).
House Energy and Commerce Committee spokesperson Larry Neal in a statement said, "Hopefully, this announcement will also clear the way for Dr. Sunderland's termination from the Commissioned Corps."
Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who likely will become chair of the committee next year, said, "Sunderland remained on the payroll for years after NIH was given information from the committee about this conflict and while the Surgeon General sat on an NIH recommendation that he be removed."
Arthur Caplan, chair of the medical ethics department at the University of Pennsylvania, said, "It's just staggering news that will have an enormous ripple effect." He added, "There is a mixed message here, which is: Stay away from the private sector but please work with the private sector" (Baltimore Sun, 12/5).