Gail Burton  /  AP file
Dr. Pearson Sunderland III pleaded guilty 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.
updated 12/22/2006 2:52:30 PM ET 2006-12-22T19:52:30

An NIH researcher was ordered Friday to forfeit $300,000 and perform 400 hours of community service but will not have to pay a fine for failing to disclose lucrative consulting work with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.

Pearson Sunderland III, a prominent Alzheimer’s expert who ran a geriatric research unit at the National Institute of Mental Health, pleaded guilty earlier this month to a misdemeanor conflict of interest charge. Sunderland admitted he shared thousands of NIH human tissue samples with Pfizer at the same time he was paid as a private consultant. Many of the samples are highly sought-after in Alzheimer’s research.

Sunderland told U.S. District Judge Frederick Motz at his sentencing he didn’t have a good explanation for his actions.

“I cannot tell you why except to say this is not part of my normal character,” Sunderland said, who also was ordered to serve two years of probation.

However, the researcher acknowledged the case had harmed the “trust I had generated with both patients and colleagues.”

Prosecutors said Sunderland failed to get prior approval for consulting work that related to his federal research, and did not properly report the fees and travel expenses from Pfizer.

Before sentencing prosecutor Martin Clarke told the judge the work with Pfizer was not a “boondoggle created simply for him to personally profit from,” noting the work was “very significant and important research” that had the support of fellow researchers and patients.

Prosecutors have said they hoped Sunderland’s case will send a message to other government scientists, but in a letter to The Washington Post, one study volunteer protested the leniency of the agreement.

Ann Zuvekas, of Annandale, Va., said she was one of the healthy volunteers in Alzheimer’s studies who had tissue samples “passed on without the volunteers’ knowledge or permission for personal and corporate gain.”

The NIH issued new consulting restrictions last year after identifying at least 44 government researchers who were improperly paid for working on the side for biotechnology and drug companies. Most have been given written or verbal reprimands or were permitted to retire.

NIH spokesman Don Ralbovsky said after Sunderland’s plea hearing that the researcher remains an National Institute of Mental Health employee, but added that he could not comment on whether the guilty plea would affect his job.

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