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Researcher charged with criminal conflict of interest for consulting work

Updated:
Federal prosecutors on Monday charged a leading government Alzheimer's researcher with engaging in a felony criminal conflict of interest by earning $285,000 in private consulting fees from a pharmaceutical giant.

In a rare criminal case against a government scientist, the National Institutes of Health's Dr. Trey Sunderland was accused of performing consulting work for Pfizer Inc. that improperly overlapped with his government duties.

The single conflict of interest charge, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, carries a maximum of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Prosecutors filed the charge as a criminal information, instead of indictment, signaling a possible plea deal.

Court papers say Sunderland failed to get proper approval from NIH for his consulting work and did not properly report $285,000 in consulting fees and travel money from Pfizer for work that ``directly related'' to his federal research responsibilities.

Sunderland ``did participate personally and substantially as a government employee and officer ... in a particular matter in which, to the defendant's knowledge, he had a financial interest,'' the court papers said.

Sunderland's case was highlighted during a congressional investigation starting more than two years ago that examined the large number of NIH scientists who earned money moonlighting as outside consultants for private biotechnology and drug companies.

That investigation prompted the NIH, the government's premier health research organization, to launch its own internal review and to institute tough new ethics rules that bar such deals. Scientists recently told NIH the new rules are so strict that many are considering leaving the agency.

Sunderland's attorney Robert Muse and NIH officials declined to comment on the development Monday.

He is scheduled to appear for arraignment in U.S. District Court in Baltimore on Friday.

Sunderland is a prominent Alzheimer's expert who ran a geriatric research unit at the National Institute of Mental Health within NIH.

While federal prosecutors were looking into his activities with Pfizer, investigators from the House Energy and Commerce Committee revealed in August that he had shared thousands of NIH human tissue samples with the company during the time he was paid as a private consultant.

The subject of his NIH work with Pfizer, focused on finding early indicators of Alzheimer's disease, was the ``same project'' as his private consulting work, U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein found.

In June, Sunderland refused to answer questions before a House committee, asserting his Fifth Amendment rights. His attorney has maintained he did not engage in improper overlap of government and private work.

Sunderland asked to retire from NIH two years ago after the probes of his activities began, but remains at NIH on assignment as an officer of the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. The Corps had refused his resignation request while the criminal investigation was ongoing.

Most of the 44 federal scientists that NIH identified as improperly accepting personal money from drug or biotechnology companies walked away with reprimands or were allowed to retire unscathed.

Sunderland was one of only two researchers to be criminally investigated.
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