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Feds Say NIH Scientist Took Money For Private Research

March 6, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A scientist at the National Institutes of Health accepted three payoffs totaling $33,000 for doing research for drug companies at an NIH laboratory, congressional investigators testified Wednesday.

Two investigators for the General Accounting Office charge that Dr. Prem Sarin, former administrator of the Laboratory of Tumor Cell Biology at the National Cancer Institute, falsified documents, accepted consulting fees from drug companies, used federal labs and staff to do research for the companies, and then funnelled the money into his personal bank accounts.

″It appears Dr. Sarin used his NCI laboratory and staff to perform work... for his own personal gain,″ GAO investigator Leo A. D’Amico testified before the House subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

A secretary in Sarin’s office said he was at another office on Wednesday, but a reporter’s calls to the second office went unanswered. Karen Smigel of the NCI press office, meanwhile, said he was unavailable for comment.

D’Amico and Fred Chasnov, both GAO investigators working for the committee, 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 the Laboratory of Tumor Cell Biology.

They said he received another $4,000 from a third firm, called Reponsif, in a case in which he previously denied to Congress that he had worked for the company.

The investigators said that Sarin set up a bank account in such a way that it appears to be ″a deliberate effort to hide his actions″ and that documents he used to clear the laboratory 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. Gallo said that 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,″ he said, ″the level of trust was too high.″

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

″A clever obfuscation,″ said committee chairman Rep. John D. Dingell, D- Mich.

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.

Dingell held hearings last April and Sarin then testified that he was not a paid consultant for Reponsif.

D’Amico said Wednesday that Sarin’s testimony was apparently ″neither truthful nor accurate.″

The GAO investigators said they have found proof that Sarin was hired by Reponsif and received a check for $4,000 from the drug company.

″Dr. Sarin was, in fact, paid to represent Reponsif at the FDA meeting, utilized government resources...to perform testing, and made misleading statements to this subcommittee and NIH officials,″ the investigation report said. ″In his actions, Dr. Sarin may have violated criminal statues involving conflicts of interest, theft of government property, and false statements to the government.″

Raub said that Sarin’s case is currently under investigation by the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Sarin has been relieved of supervisory duties, but continues to work at the National Cancer Institute, one of the National Institutes of Health.

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