A senior government scientist from the National Institutes of Health who took about $300,000 in unauthorized payments from a drug company pleaded guilty Friday to a federal charge that he committed a criminal conflict of interest.
The admission by Dr. P. Trey Sunderland III came after years of denials by his attorneys and six months after the scientist had asserted his constitutional right against self-incrimination to a congressional subcommittee.
The prosecution was the first of an NIH scientist under federal conflict-of-interest laws in 14 years.
Sunderland, 55, admitted that he failed to get required authorization for taking $285,000 in consulting fees and $15,000 in expense payments from the drug company Pfizer Inc. from 1998 to 2003. During the same period, he provided Pfizer with spinal-tap samples collected from hundreds of patients as part of a research collaboration approved by the NIH.
After the hearing Friday, U.S. Atty. Rod J. Rosenstein told reporters that Sunderland’s actions were a breach of the public trust.
“This case is not about an honest mistake,” Rosenstein said. “If a government employee is actually on the payroll of a company that benefits from its dealings with the United States, there’s a chance that that employee’s financial interest will affect his or her official actions.”
Sunderland, who joined the NIH in 1982 and headed its geriatric psychiatry branch, answered in even tones more than two dozen questions from U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz. Afterward, Sunderland’s eyes welled as he embraced his teenage son.
A plea agreement calls for Sunderland to pay the government the $300,000 he took from Pfizer, perform 400 hours of community service, and submit to two years of probation. Motz set sentencing for Dec. 22.
Federal guidelines give the judge discretion to impose up to a year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000 for Sunderland’s violation, a misdemeanor. However, the judge reviewed the plea deal privately with Sunderland’s lawyers and with federal prosecutors before the Friday hearing, and those familiar with the case said they did not expect a harsher sentence.
Under the collaboration with Pfizer, Sunderland’s staff provided Pfizer with spinal-tap samples they had collected from patients who had Alzheimer’s disease or were at risk of developing it. Drug companies prize the material because it could contain genetic clues for finding a breakthrough treatment.
Sunderland at no point from 1998 to 2003 sought permission from his NIH bosses to take the personal payments from Pfizer, and he did not disclose the income on annual financial reports.
Sunderland did not address reporters Friday. His lawyer Robert F. Muse declined to comment.
Unaddressed at the hearing was how the guilty plea might affect Sunderland’s employment. An NIH spokesman in Bethesda, Md., said Sunderland remained a federal employee.