Sunderland has just entered a guilty plea in this case. Per the Los Angeles Times, reported by David Willman:
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.
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. [Judge] Motz set sentencing for Dec. 22.
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.
Also, as reported by The Scientist, the Geriatric Psychiatry Branch of the NIMH has been dismantled. But
despite Sunderland's plea, Pfizer Inc. denied any wrong-doing:
Sunderland 'received honoraria for consulting and educational activities that were reasonable and customary for an expert of his stature and expertise,' Pfizer spokesman Stephen F. Lederer told The Scientist in an email. 'We believe our actions complied with applicable laws and ethical standards. We are not aware of any allegation that we violated any law or regulation.'In my humble opinion, the only way to start beating back the tide of conflicts of interest that has enveloped health care is to start assuring negative incentives that will outweigh the personal gain or business profits afforded by such conflicts. The conviction of Sunderland is a small, but important step in this regard.
On the other hand, it is unclear how Pfizer can maintain that its actions met "ethical standards" after a recipient of the payments the company made has been convicted of criminal conflict of interest for accepting these payments.