DECEMBER 05, 2006
A senior scientist at the scandal-plagued National Institutes of Health has been federally charged with conflict of interest for taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from a giant pharmaceutical company involved in his government research.
It marks the first prosecution in 14 years of an official at the taxpayer-funded institute notorious for scientists whose integrity has been corrupted by financial conflicts of interest. More than 100 of those under investigation this year for improperly accepting cash from drug and biotechnology firms continue collecting their hefty government paychecks with no other consequences.
High-ranking officials at the NIH, the nation’s steward of medical and behavioral research with an annual budget of about $28 billion, have come under fire for not acting on the widespread corruption and this week federal prosecutors took that step when they charged a prominent Alzheimer’s disease researcher, Dr. Trey Sunderland.
In violation of a federal law that prohibits officials from accepting outside compensation for their government duties, Sunderland took nearly $300,000 in fees from drug giant Pfizer Inc. for work that was directly intertwined with his government research. Not surprisingly, Sunderland failed to note is earnings from the drug-company and additional expense reimbursements on annual government financial reports.
Institute scientists have for years concealed their lucrative “constulting” deals with private companies, a violation of agency rules. For example, this year eight out of the nine scientists who wrote the nation’s cholesterol-lowering guidelines recommended drugs in which they had huge financial interests. Also, a well-known cancer scientist failed to report more than $100,000 from pharmaceutical giant Merck.
So far no consequences for these government employees although NIH ethics officers say they committed serious misconduct. The doctor charged this week may also escape punishment since he is a member of a special U.S. Surgeon General unit that shields him from termination or other disciplinary measures by the government. Members of the U.S. Public Health Services Commissioned Corps, a uniformed service of the Department of Health and Human Services, get such protection no matter what they do.
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