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NIH Scientist Took Money for Private Research, Feds Say

March 7, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A scientist at the National Institutes of Health is under investigation on allegations that he took payoffs totaling $33,000 for work for drug companies at an NIH laboratory.

Two General Accounting Office investigators asserted Wednesday that Dr. Prem Sarin, former administrator of the Laboratory of Tumor Cell Biology at the National Cancer Institute, ″used his NCI laboratory and staff to perform work ... for his own personal gain.″

Leo A. D’Amico and Fred Chasnov told the House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee that Sarin falsified documents, accepted consulting fees from drug companies, used federal labs and staff to do research for the companies and then funneled the money into his personal bank accounts.

Karen Smigel, an NCI spokeswoman, said Sarin was unavailable for comment. A secretary at Sarin’s office said he was at another office, but phone calls to the second office went unanswered.

D’Amico and Chasnov testified that Sarin accepted a $4,000 check from Pfizer Laboratories and $25,000 from ASTA Pharma, a German pharmaceutical firm, for studies that were performed at Sarin’s laboratory.

They said he received an additional $4,000 from a third firm, called Reponsif, in a case in which he previously denied to Congress that he was paid by the company.

The investigators said Sarin set up a bank account in a way that appears to be ″a deliberate effort to hide his actions″ and that documents he used to clear the lab work apparently bear the forged signature of his boss, Dr. Robert Gallo, chief of the NCI laboratory.

Gallo, the co-discoverer of the AIDS virus, testified that Sarin was his deputy for almost 20 years and he trusted him completely. He said that in a 20-minute discussion, Sarin denied doing work for drug companies and Gallo said he made no further investigation.

″I’m not a policeman,″ Gallo noted. Also, he said, he was close to Sarin and ″brothers don’t investigate brothers ... I was misled.″

Other officials testified that an NIH investigation failed to uncover Sarin’s connection with Pfizer and ASTA Pharma.

William F. Raub, acting director of NIH, admitted that the in-house investigation was botched, principally because the agency puts a lot of trust in the integrity of its scientists, and that it was ″a painful lesson.″

″In hindsight, the level of trust was too high,″ he said.

D’Amico and Chasnov said records show that Sarin tested Pfizer compounds in the NCI laboratory and that the drug company paid him $4,000 in February 1987. ASTA Pharma sent Sarin a check for $25,000 in January, 1987 after he agreed to test the company’s drug D-penicillamine against the AIDS virus.

Sarin, the investigators said, told both Pfizer and ASTA Pharma to make checks for the work payable to FAES, the initials of the Foundation for Advanced Education in the Sciences, which receives grants to pay visiting scientists working at the AIDS laboratory.

But the investigators said Sarin deposited the checks in personal checking and savings accounts opened in the name of FAES-NERIC. The investigators said that while the FAES initials are the same as the foundation, they actually stood for ″Family Account for the Education of the Sarin Children-Neil and Eric.″ Money in the accounts, they said, was used for household expenses, family trips, furniture and other personal expenses.

″In our opinion, Dr. Sarin’s requests that payments to him be made payable to ‘FAES’ can be interpreted as a deliberate effort to hide his actions,″ D’Amico and Chasnov said in a statement.

Sarin was investigated in 1987 after it was learned that he appeared at a 1985 Food and Drug Administration hearing to testify for the drug company Reponsif. NIH regulations prohibit NIH employees from representing private firms and Sarin received an admonition for representing Reponsif.

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