Two out of the 44 federal scientists found by the National Institutes of Health to have violated rules on outside consulting warrant further investigation for possible criminal acts, yet they remain employed by the agency.
The two, physicians Trey Sunderland and Thomas Walsh, would have been fired if they were civilians due to the seriousness of their misconduct, according to NIH documents cited by the Associated Press. Sunderland, chief of the geriatric psychiatry branch at the National Institute of Mental Health, improperly accepted more than $700,000 in consulting fees and has allegedly taken recent trips to Switzerland and Hawaii on the government's tab, while Walsh, a senior NIH researcher, is alleged to have accepted more than $100,000 in unauthorized fees from a total of 25 pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.
The other 42 scientists received reprimands or were allowed to retire without punishment.
Last week, in response to grilling by members of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, NIH officials denied not adequately disciplining NIH employees found to have violated the rules. NIH Deputy Director Raynard Kington said that the agency began administrative actions against 34 of the scientists and referred another 10 to the HHS Office of Inspector General for possible prosecution. OIG decided to seek prosecution against only Sunderland and Walsh, NIH officials said. They also said that NIH cannot fire either of the two because they are members of the Public Health Service’s Commissioned Corps, whose disciplinary rules including the right to a formal corps hearing, trump NIH’s.
Sunderland’s corps hearing has been delayed indefinitely at the request of the Justice Department, which is considering criminal charges, according to testimony from the assistant secretary for health, The Washington Post reported. Walsh’s hearing has been delayed because it was awaiting completion of Sunderland’s.
The NIH banned outside consulting agreements last year, after revelations that the 44 were consulting outside of their official duties, in many cases without reporting the income or getting prior approval.