Most of the federal scientists who improperly accepted personal money from drug or biotechnology companies walked away with reprimands or were allowed to retire unscathed.
Only two of the 44 scientists found to have violated rules governing private consulting deals are being investigated for possible criminal activity, and they remain on the government payroll, the National Institutes of Health told The Associated Press this week in the most detailed accounting it has released.
NIH spokesman John Burklow said his agency wanted eight others reviewed for possible crimes, but those cases were rejected by the investigating office at the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.
The two still outstanding — Drs. Trey Sunderland and Thomas Walsh — both committed "serious misconduct," so grave that they would be fired if they were civilians, NIH internal ethics reports contend.
NIH says it has been unable to act against the two because they are part of the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, which provides medical help during disasters.
Lawmakers plan to push for answers Wednesday at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing, part of continuing scrutiny into how the agency polices conflicts of interest. Responding to congressional criticism, NIH last year barred federal scientists from the once-common practice of earning lucrative paychecks from private companies.
Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said he wants to know why it is taking so long to resolve the case of Sunderland, a leading Alzheimer's disease researcher whose request to leave government service has been denied for two years.
"Where's the accountability? Where's the response?" Stupak said. "This person should be dealt with severely."
He referred to allegations that Sunderland improperly transferred human tissue samples from NIH patients to the drug company Pfizer.
"These people thought they were helping other people, not some scientist profiting," he said. Sunderland, through his attorney, denies that his consulting payments from Pfizer were tied to samples he provided in his government capacity.
The Public Health Service Commissioned Corps is concerned about the allegations against Sunderland and Walsh and "will take appropriate action should wrongdoing be found," said spokeswoman Christina Pearson.
However she cited "other reviews" of Sunderland that her agency must coordinate with.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said the case points out deeper problems at NIH.
"In spite of the public changes that have been made at NIH, there really does not appear to be a cultural change where the institution and the members of the institution condemn the kind of behavior that apparently Dr. Sunderland has exhibited. It's really, really disappointing," he said.
The subcommittee is expected to question NIH officials about documents showing it approved several taxpayer-paid trips for Sunderland to attend conferences and events in places like Hawaii and Toronto, even after recommending his firing. Things changed last month when his superiors, a day after assuring Sunderland the agency would soon negotiate his release, suddenly restricted his access and activities and assigned him to administrative duties, his lawyers said in a letter to the subcommittee.
NIH investigated 103 employees after revelations in 2004 that many had failed to report their paid relationships with drug companies. Of the 44 alleged offenders, six left NIH before they could be punished and two had offenses so minor they merited no sanction, Burklow said.
The majority received reprimands or warnings for failing to properly obtain approvals for their outside consulting work, he said. Suspensions ranging from a week to 45 days were meted out to a few who did not get prior approval or did not report their drug company ties, said Burklow.
Sunderland is under investigation by the HHS inspector general and the Justice Department, officials have said. And a government official told AP that Walsh, a prominent cancer researcher, is the other case the inspector general is reviewing. The official requested anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
NIH ethics reports allege the two scientists had unauthorized, unreported deals with drug companies — Sunderland earning more than $600,000 over eight years for consulting and speeches and Walsh more than $100,000 in five years — and that their consulting improperly overlapped with government duties.
Lawyers for both scientists said in written defenses to NIH investigators that the two put in exceptionally long hours at their government jobs, even if the proper paperwork was missing for taking leave to perform outside work.
Documents obtained by AP show Sunderland initially got a green light to retire in November 2004 and he had his 11-year research project transferred to a New York center where he planned to accept a prominent post. But NIH officials subsequently recommended against his departure and the center now is moving on to hire someone else.
Sunderland's attorney Robert Muse cites a litany of mixed signals Sunderland received from NIH, including months of refusal to meet after stating a willingness to work out his release.
Burklow, citing privacy concerns, would not discuss any individual cases.
"The bureaucratic inaction," Muse wrote the congressional subcommittee on Monday, "has unreasonably interfered not only with Dr. Sunderland's career but also with his important Alzheimer's research," which he said cost the government millions of dollars.
Some scientists whose consultancies were negatively highlighted in 2004 congressional hearings and press accounts left NIH voluntarily. They suffered no repercussions.
Cancer researcher Lance Liotta said he retired in May 2005 with pension and benefits, accepting "a great opportunity" in research at George Mason University. His consulting activities, though questioned after the fact by Congress, were approved at the time, and he never was sanctioned.
Another former researcher, 33-year NIH veteran Michael Brownstein, had held nearly $2 million in stock with four companies whose boards he served on while he worked at NIH. The agency approved the consulting and never accused him of wrongdoing, said Brownstein, who continues his genetic research at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Md.