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Dr. Pearson “Trey” Sunderland III, a National Institute of Health (NIH) senior researcher on Alzheimer’s disease, pleads guilty to a federal charge that he committed a criminal conflict of interest. The charges stem from Sunderland’s contract with the pharmaceutical firm Pfizer as a paid consultant for work that overlapped his duties as a public servant. Sunderland is the first official in 14 years to be prosecuted for conflict of interest at NIH, an agency rocked in recent years by revelations of widespread financial ties to the drug industry. According to the original court filing, in early 1998, “Sunderland initiated negotiations with Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant, to be paid as a consultant for his work on the same project” that he headed for NIH, a research project into Alzheimer’s disease. In June 2006, Sunderland was revealed to have engaged in a secret contract with Pfizer to supply thousands of samples of spinal fluid collected from Alzheimer’s patients at taxpayer expense and slated to be used in NIH research. Sunderland turned those samples over to Pfizer, which in turn used them to refine and market its drug Aricept, a leading prescription drug for treating the disease (see June 14, 2006). According to the original charging document filed with the court, in 1998 Sunderland approached Pfizer with a proposal that he be paid $25,000 a year for “consulting” with the firm, plus $2,500 every time he attended a one-day meeting with company representatives. Pfizer agreed. Later that same year, Sunderland set up another deal with Pfizer to be paid another $25,000 a year, according to prosecutors. The House Energy and Commerce Committee received little cooperation from NIH—Sunderland himself invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when called to testify before the committee in June 2006—but subpoeaned 21 drug manufacturers known to have paid NIH researchers. Sunderland’s history of payments from Pfizer, which he did not reveal to the NIH as required by law, were some of those discovered. After that information was revealed in 2004, NIH director Elias Zerhouni requested that the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services investigate the matter. Government researchers found that 44 researchers, including Sunderland, had off-the-books relationships with drug and biotech companies; many of those researchers were reprimanded and/or took early retirement. At the time of Sunderland’s contracts with Pfizer, NIH restrictions against public-private collaborations were far more lax than they are today. (Beamish 12/4/2006; Associated Press 12/5/2006; Willman 12/5/2006; Fahrenthold 12/5/2006)
'Public Trust Has Been Violated' - Congressman John Dingell (D-MI) asks, “Will a criminal conviction for conflict of interest be enough to get someone fired from NIH?” Bart Stupak (D-MI) adds, “If the National Institutes of Health and Commissioned Corps fail to discipline Dr. Sunderland, even after criminal charges have been brought, we can only conclude that no one is being held accountable, the system is broken, and the public trust has been violated.” (Associated Press 12/5/2006; Willman 12/5/2006) Committee member Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) says: “I found this story incredibly distressing because it is so important that people have confidence in the NIH. It is a pretty big move for people to donate human tissue to further scientific discovery. People have to have confidence that that decision… is treated with the utmost respect.” (Fahrenthold 12/5/2006)
Guilty Plea Avoids Jail Time - Sunderland pleads guilty to the charge under a plea agreement in which he admits to taking some $285,000 in “unauthorized” consulting fees from Pfizer as well as $15,000 in travel expense payments between 1998 and 2003. During the same period, he provided Pfizer with spinal-tap samples collected from hundreds of patients as part of a research collaboration approved by the NIH. He agrees to pay the government $300,000, perform 400 hours of community service, and serve two years’ probation. Sunderland faced up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine, but avoided those penalties through his plea agreement. After the hearing, US Attorney Rod Rosenstein tells reporters that Sunderland’s actions constitute a breach of the public trust. (Willman 12/5/2006; Fahrenthold 12/5/2006) According to NIH spokesman Don Ralbovsky, Sunderland remains an employee, working as a “special assistant and senior adviser” in a division that gives out grants; Rabolvsky refuses to comment on whether Sunderland faces termination procedures. The branch of NIH that Sunderland once headed, the Geriatric Psychiatry Branch, no longer exists, according to Ralbovsky. (Fahrenthold 12/5/2006) One media report says Sunderland is planning to retire. (Beamish 12/4/2006) Sunderland will later become a doctor and director of the Alzheimer Research Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. (Lundbeck Institute 12/11/2008)
Pfizer Denies Wrongdoing - For its part, Pfizer maintains that it broke no laws and breached no ethics, saying in a statement: “We believe our actions complied with applicable laws and ethical standards. We are not aware of any allegation that we violated any law or regulation.” (Willman 12/5/2006; Fahrenthold 12/5/2006; Los Angeles Times 12/11/2006)
Critics say that the legal pursuit of former Wisconsin state purchasing official Georgia Thompson, whose conviction on corruption charges was overturned by a federal appeals court (see April 5, 2007), may have been politically motivated. State Representative David Travis (D-Westport) says Thompson was persecuted by US Attorney Steven Biskupic, a Bush administration appointee. “I think it’s right out of the Karl Rove playbook,” he says, referring to White House political chief Karl Rove. “I never thought I’d see a prosecution like this. That woman is innocent. He’s ruined her life.” Republicans used Thompson’s prosecution and conviction (see June 13, 2006) as a centerpiece of their attempt to thwart the re-election attempts of Governor Jim Doyle (D-WI), who survived a 2006 challenge by Mark Green (R-WI), who accused Doyle of corruption throughout the campaign. Representative Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) calls on Congress to investigate the prosecution, saying the prosecution ties into Congress’s investigation into the firing of eight US Attorneys (see December 7, 2006 and December 20, 2006). “Congress should also look into whether partisan politics influenced, or even dictated, the investigations conducted by the US Attorneys’ offices in order to stay in the [Bush] administration’s good graces,” Baldwin says. “The 7th Circuit acquittal of Georgia Thompson, after a widely publicized pre-election prosecution, certainly raises serious questions about the integrity and motivation of the prosecutor.” Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, asks Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to turn over all of the Justice Department’s records in the Georgia Thompson case to the committee, “including any communications between the Justice Department, the White House, and any other outside party, including party officials.” Leahy, joined by Wisconsin’s two senators Herb Kohl (D-WI) and Russell Feingold (D-WI), also asks Gonzales to turn over records related to voter fraud investigations in Wisconsin (see Early 2005) and any records pertaining to Biskupic’s possible firing. Wisconsin Democrats have long considered Thompson’s prosecution an attempt to besmirch Doyle before the 2006 election, and have accused Biskupic of mounting a politically motivated pursuit of an innocent government official. (Marley and Walters 4/7/2007; Frommer 4/10/2007; Rourke 4/10/2007) Feingold says in a statement that Thompson was the victim of a “miscarriage of justice,” and adds, “In light of ongoing concerns about the politicization of US Attorneys’ offices around the country, I am seeking further information from the Department of Justice on how this case and voter fraud cases after the 2004 election came about and whether there was improper political pressure to pursue them.” (Federal Document Clearing House 4/10/2007)
Denials of Political Motivations - Biskupic’s First Assistant US Attorney (FAUSA) Michelle Jacobs says that the prosecution of Thompson was not politically motivated, and the office received no contact from the White House or the Justice Department. “They acted on the evidence as they found it, convinced a jury of 12 that there was criminal conduct, convinced a judge who has been sitting on a state and federal bench for 33 years that the verdict was sound,” Jacobs says. “But we just did not convince the court of appeals, and we’ll respect the court of appeals decision.” Andy Gussert, president of the state employees union AFT-Wisconsin, says Congress should look into the Thompson case because servants should “not become political footballs to be kicked around.” He adds: “This prosecution raises additional questions that resonate with concerns about the recent firings of US Attorneys. If people are to have faith in our judicial system, those questions will need answers.” Former State Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, who was involved in the Thompson investigation, says the investigation was not politically motivated. Lautenschlager is a Democrat, but is considered a political enemy of Doyle’s.
Thompson Nearly Destitute - Thompson’s lawyer, Stephen Hurley, says Thompson has been left almost entirely penniless by the case. She lost her $77,300-a-year state job, about $60,000 in back wages, and owes somewhere between $250,000 and $400,000 in legal fees. She was forced to cash in her state pension and sell her $264,700 condominium, which she had paid off entirely. Travis says the federal government should pay her lost wages and legal costs, and compensate her for her time in prison. State officials say they are prepared to offer Thompson her old job or a similar position at the same salary, and are investigating whether they can reimburse her back wages and pay her legal bills. Thompson says she does not want her old job back, but would like another job in the same division. She is very concerned with staying out of the public spotlight. (Marley and Walters 4/7/2007; Rourke 4/10/2007)
Biskupic Considered for Firing - Unbeknownst to Congress or the press, Biskupic was considered for firing in 2005 (see March 2, 2005), but was later removed from the list of people to be fired. Biskupic himself will soon claim that he did not prosecute Thompson for political purposes (see April 14, 2007).
The Justice Department is investigating four cases of alleged selective prosecution, including the prosecution and overturned conviction of Wisconsin government official Georgia Thompson by former US Attorney Steven Biskupic (see April 5, 2007). The department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) informs the House Judiciary Committee of the investigations, in a letter signed by OPR chief H. Marshall Jarrett. Since Thompson’s conviction was overturned over a year ago, her prosecution has been widely criticized as giving the appearance of being politically motivated (see April 7-10, 2007, April 16, 2007, and April 24, 2007). Committee members John Conyers (D-MI), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), and Linda Sanchez (D-CA) are spearheading the committee’s probe into the Thompson prosecution. Many suspect that Biskupic prosecuted Thompson in order to avoid being fired in the 2006 US Attorney purge (see March 10, 2006, December 7, 2006, and December 20, 2006). Biskupic has denied knowing he was being considered for termination before he opened his prosecution of Thompson (see March 2, 2005), though he has also admitted to learning about being on the “purge” list after the fact (see April 14, 2007). After he opened that investigation, his name disappeared from the list. (WisPolitics Courtwatch Blog 5/23/2008; Elbow 5/29/2008)
Several Fox News anchors and commentators, along with the Fox News Web site, falsely claim that House Democrats tried to “protect” or “defend” pedophiles by voting against an amendment to the Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act (LLEHCPA). The legislation defines as a federal crime specific acts of violence or attempted violence “because of the actual or perceived religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of any person.” The amendment, advanced by Representative Steve King (R-IA), stated that “the term ‘sexual orientation’ shall not include pedophilia.” Representative Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) noted that federal statutes already exclude pedophilia from the definition of “sexual orientation,” and called King’s amendment “unnecessary and… inflammatory in terms of insinuations.” Fox News anchor Bill Hemmer, commentator Sean Hannity, and Fox Nation now characterize the Democrats’ successful opposition to King’s amendment as an attempt to “protect” or “defend” pedophiles. All three claim that Democrats defended pedophiles while refusing to defend veterans.
Hannity: 'Special Category for Pedophiles' - Hannity tells his viewers, “Democrats just voted to extend special legal protections to pedophiles.” He also falsely claims that the Democrats inserted a “special category for pedophiles” in the legislation. Interviewing King, Hannity says: “I want to be perfectly clear. So hate—we have a hate crimes bill, and you’re saying, all right, we should exempt pedophiles. Every Democrat says no.” King calls Hannity’s characterization “absolutely right,” and says that “on the top of that, the amendment that I offered to exempt pedophiles from a special protected status was after Tammy Baldwin, one of the lead sponsors on the bill, had argued that the sexual orientation, special protective status in the bill, only covered heterosexuals and homosexuals, so that doesn’t include a pedophile. But she opposed the amendment anyway, as did all the Democrats, as you just showed tonight.” Later, Hannity asks King, “Is it safe to say that Democrats were willing to protect pedophiles?” and King replies: “Sean, it is a matter of Congressional record. Absolutely true—beyond any doubt whatsoever.” Hannity and King then claim that Democrats refused to support another section that would create “special protection” for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. King calls the Democrats’ actions furtherance of the “agenda… of the homosexual activists.”
Hemmer: Protecting Pedophiles, Not Veterans - Fox’s “non-partisan” newscast, America’s Newsroom, runs an on-screen “chyron” that claims, “House Dems vote to protect pedophiles, but not veterans.” Anchor Bill Hemmer tells viewers that Democrats “voted to give special protection to pedophiles” (see October 13, 2009).
Fox Nation: Defending Pedophiles over Veterans - Fox Nation, which claims to be free of bias, runs a headline saying, “House Democrats Defend Pedophiles Over Veterans.” (Media Matters 5/6/2009)
The lobbying firm Americans for Prosperity (AFP), which is heavily involved in so-called “Astroturf” protests against health care reform (see April 14, 2009, April 15, 2009, May 29, 2009, July 27, 2009, August 4, 2009, August 5, 2009, Before August 6, 2009, August 6, 2009, August 6-7, 2009, August 10, 2009, and August 12, 2009), announces it will hold three town-hall style meetings in Wisconsin on August 26 and 27. The meetings will take place in the districts of three House members, David Obey (D-WI), Ron Kind (D-WI), and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), all of whom AFP feels might be open to pressure. ABC reporter John Stossel will moderate the sessions for AFP. (Umhoefer 8/14/2009) Progressive news watchdog Web site Media Matters questions the propriety of Stossel, a supposedly nonpartisan member of the media, moderating the sessions for AFP, an avowedly partisan organization. (Media Matters 8/17/2009)
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