updated 12/8/2006 11:57:14 AM ET 2006-12-08T16:57:14

A government researcher pleaded guilty Friday to misdemeanor conflict of interest for taking $285,000 in consulting fees from pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. for work that improperly overlapped his official duties.

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Dr. Trey Sunderland, of Chevy Chase, Md., a prominent Alzheimer’s expert who ran a geriatric research unit at the National Institute of Mental Health, entered the plea in U.S. District Court in Baltimore.

Sunderland, 55, failed to get NIH approval for the consulting work that “directly related” to his federal research, and did not properly report the fees and travel expenses from New York-based Pfizer, prosecutors said in court filings.

The case is believed to be the first conflict prosecution against a federal scientist since 1992 when NIH researcher Prem Sarin was convicted of embezzling a drug company payment to NIH that was intended to help with AIDS research.

The agreement with federal prosecutors calls for two years supervised probation, 400 hours of community service, forfeiture of $300,000, and a fine yet to be determined by the judge. Sentencing was scheduled for Dec. 22.

Sunderland, who was released on personal recognizance pending sentencing, had faced up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine on the single charge.

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