Most recently interest has focused on two cases. Dr Trey Sunderland, a leader within in the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), part of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), provided tissue samples to Pfizer Inc while receiving consulting fees from the drug company. (See posts here, here, and here.)
So today, while newspapers were filled with stories of Pfizer's withdrawal of torcetrapib, a drug it had hyped as a new kind of treatment to prevent heart disease, a striking follow-up about Sunderland's relationship with Pfizer Inc. appeared with much less fanfare. Per the Associated Press (as available here from the Boston Globe), Dr Trey Sunderland has just been indicted for "criminal conflict of interest." The Globe reported (somewhat re-ordered):
In a rare federal prosecution, a leading government Alzheimer's researcher was charged Monday with a criminal conflict of interest for performing lucrative private drug company work that overlapped his official duties.Of course, an indictment does not prove criminal guilt. But the indictment of a formerly respected leader within the NIH for "criminal conflict of interest" certainly is a noteworthy step in the process of finally facing up to the conflicts that apparently afflicted a considerable number of the mid- and upper leadership of the NIH. These conflicts, in turn, are only a sub-set of the conflicts of interest that pervade other health care organizations, including medical schools and academic medical centers.
Prosecutors alleged Dr. Trey Sunderland of the National Institutes of Health received $285,000 in improper consulting fees and travel expenses from Pfizer, Inc., for work on early indicators of Alzheimer's at the same time he also oversaw similar NIH business with the drugmaker.
The private consulting 'directly related' to his government job, and Sunderland failed to obtain the proper approvals from his supervisors or disclose the work to NIH, according to papers filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
The felony charge carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Prosecutors filed the charge as a criminal information, instead of indictment, signaling the possibility of a plea deal.
The prosecution is believed to be the first such case against a federal scientist since the early 1990s.
Sunderland refused to testify before Congress last June, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee which launched the probe called Monday for Sunderland's dismissal. Otherwise, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said in a statement, 'We can only conclude that no one is being held accountable, the system is broken and the public trust has been violated.'
Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., complained Sunderland had been kept on even after Department of Health and Human Services agencies found wrongdoing in their own internal investigations.
'Will a criminal conviction for conflict of interest be enough to get someone fired from NIH?' he asked.
Ned Feder, a former NIH scientist now with the non-profit watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, said 'in this and similar cases NIH authorities have made it habit of covering up or minimizing wrongdoing. They are still hiding the details of other scientists' conflicts of interest over the past 10 years.'
Experts said the last prosecution of a senior NIH scientist was that of Prem Sarin, who was convicted in 1992 of embezzling a drug company payment to NIH that was intended to help with AIDS research.
However, this case raises a further question. If Sunderland deserved indictment for taking money as a "consultant" from Pfizer Inc., and delivering to Pfizer samples he obtained while he nominally was working full-time for the NIH on issues related to his consulting assignment, what does Pfizer Inc., or the leaders there who decided to initiate the relationship with Sunderland, deserve?