A federal judge on Friday spared a convicted National Institutes of Health researcher, Dr. P. Trey Sunderland III, any prison time but ordered him to hand over $300,000 in illicit payments he took from a major drug company.
U.S. District Judge J. Frederic Motz also sentenced Sunderland to two years of supervised probation and 400 hours of community service.
"Obviously, this was unacceptable conduct," Motz said.
Sunderland had pleaded guilty Dec. 8 to a criminal conflict of interest related to his payments from Pfizer Inc. The sentence matched a plea agreement in November between prosecutors and Sunderland's lawyers.
Sunderland took Pfizer's money from 1998 to 2003 while he collaborated with the company in his official federal role as a researcher of Alzheimer's disease.
Under the government-Pfizer collaboration, Sunderland's NIH staff drew spinal fluid from hundreds of volunteers and turned over the samples to Pfizer. The drug company analyzed the samples for genetic clues that might help develop a treatment for Alzheimer's, a debilitating and fatal malady. NIH officials approved the scientific work.
But at the same time, Sunderland was collecting consulting fees from Pfizer related to the project and had not sought permission for such an arrangement, as required by NIH rules. He also did not report the income on his annual financial disclosure forms. At one point he told an internal ethics official that he had no interests outside the government.
NIH officials have said that if Sunderland had asked to moonlight for Pfizer, the request probably would have been denied because the activity overlapped with his official duties.
"It is illegal for any federal employee to make an official decision that directly affects their financial interest, unless they
Sunderland told Motz on Friday that he took "responsibility for these deeds." Glancing at prepared notes, Sunderland said that when he reconstructed in his mind the events that led to a criminal conviction, "I don't have an explanation."
"This process has humbled me in a way that I have never experienced before," he said. He added, his voice faltering, "This has been the most difficult thing I've ever had to do."
An assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, Martin J. Clarke, said that Sunderland's guilty plea, to one misdemeanor count, would serve as a "deterrent to future such conduct in the federal government."
Some volunteers in the government-Pfizer project said they considered Sunderland's punishment too lenient.
"I don't consider this sentence to be much more than a slap on the wrist," said Paul W. Lewis, a retired federal lawyer who volunteered in the NIH research from 2001 to 2004. "I don't consider it much of a deterrent to people of his mind-set at NIH."
In August, after learning of Sunderland's payments from Pfizer, Lewis formally asked the NIH to return his samples. He had allowed the spinal fluid to be drawn, he said, because his father had died with Alzheimer's and he wanted to help.
Sunderland's payments from Pfizer and other drug companies came to light after the Los Angeles Times reported in December 2003 that companies had made hundreds of payments of consulting fees and stock to senior NIH researchers. The reporting triggered a congressional inquiry.
Last year, the director of the NIH, Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, announced that company consulting fees and stock payments would be banned.
Motz said he would allow Sunderland up to 18 months to pay the government the entire $300,000, with no interest charged.
Sunderland had told authorities before the sentencing that he intended to perform his community service with retired veterans at the U.S. Soldiers & Airmen Home in Washington.
Sunderland until earlier this year had headed the NIH's geriatric psychiatry branch. The unit is now disbanded, but as of Friday he remained on the federal payroll, the NIH said.