updated 12/4/2006 2:29:03 PM ET 2006-12-04T19:29:03

Federal prosecutors on Monday charged a leading government Alzheimer’s researcher with engaging in a criminal conflict of interest by earning $285,000 in private consulting fees from a pharmaceutical giant.

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In a rare criminal case against a government scientist, the National Institutes of Health’s Dr. Trey Sunderland was accused of performing consulting work for Pfizer Inc. that improperly overlapped with his government duties.

The conflict of interest charge, filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, carries a maximum of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Prosecutors filed the charge as a criminal information, instead of indictment, signaling a possible plea deal.

Court papers say Sunderland failed to get proper approval from NIH for his consulting work and did not properly report $285,000 in consulting fees and travel money from Pfizer for work that “directly related” to his federal research responsibilities.

Sunderland “did participate personally and substantially as a government employee and officer ... in a particular matter in which, to the defendant’s knowledge, he had a financial interest,” the court papers said.

Sunderland’s case was highlighted during a congressional investigation that examined the large number of NIH scientists who earned money moonlighting as outside consultants for private biotechnology and drug companies.

That investigation prompted the NIH, the government’s premier health research organization, to institute tough new ethics rules that bar such deals. Scientists recently told NIH the new rules are so strict that many are considering leaving the agency.

NIH officials declined to comment Monday.

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