NIH research scientist pleads guilty to conflict charge

Chevy Chase resident accepted $300,000 to work as a consultant with Pfizer

Friday, Dec. 15, 2006

A senior research scientist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda pled guilty last week in U.S. District Court in Baltimore to a misdemeanor violation of conflict-of-interest rules by failing to disclose he received nearly $300,000 from drug giant Pfizer.

As part of his plea agreement, Pearson ‘‘Trey” Sunderland III, 55, of Chevy Chase, chief of geriatric psychiatry at the National Institute of Mental Health, agreed to forfeit $300,000. In exchange, prosecutors will recommend that Sunderland receive two years of probation instead of a prison sentence.

Sunderland could face a maximum of one year in prison. He is scheduled for sentencing at 10 a.m. Dec. 22 before U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz.

Sunderland signed two agreements to consult with Pfizer, with the first in 1998, while he also worked on the same project for the federal government.

The goal of the research was to find a way to detect early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Someone can have the disease for months before physical symptoms, such as chronic forgetfulness, present themselves, according to court documents.

Federal researchers must obtain written approval from their supervisors before doing private consulting work with companies.

‘‘Government employees are paid by the taxpayers,” said U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein at a press conference in Baltimore last week. ‘‘They owe their loyalty to the government.”

At the same time Sunderland negotiated with Pfizer and British research company Oxford Glycosciences Ltd. to develop the joint research project with NIMH, he also negotiated his private consultant contract with Pfizer. The pharmaceutical company agreed to pay him $25,000 per year and $2,500 per day for each one-day meeting he attended with the company. Pfizer paid him about $300,000 for his consulting work.

The decision by Sunderland to not disclose the private consulting arrangement with Pfizer was deliberate and not forgetfulness on his part, Rosenstein said. Like other senior NIH officials, Sunderland is required to fill out annual reports of all income earned from his outside activities and he also underwent annual ethics training, Rosenstein said.

‘‘This case is not a technical mistake,” Rosenstein said.

Sunderland, however, continues to work for NIH. The plea agreement does not require him to leave his job and NIH has declined to comment on his continued employment.

‘‘Ensuring that Department of Health and Human Services employees adhere to conflict of interest requirements and do not compromise the integrity of departmental programs is a priority of the Office of Inspector General,” said Daniel R. Levinson, inspector general of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. ‘‘This case demonstrates the commitment of the [Office of Inspector General] to work closely with our law enforcement partners to fully investigate and prosecute government officials who act in violation of conflict-of-interest laws.”