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NYT: Prosecution of a scientist in America

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  • Imran
    PROSECUTORS WORK OVERTIME TO EARN POINTS BY PROSECUTING ANYONE ON WHOM THEY CAN LAY HANDS ON BECAUSE IT IS A STEP TOWARDS UPWARD MOBILITY. IMRAN ... November
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 6, 2003
      PROSECUTORS WORK OVERTIME TO EARN POINTS BY PROSECUTING ANYONE ON WHOM THEY
      CAN LAY HANDS ON BECAUSE IT IS A STEP TOWARDS UPWARD MOBILITY.

      IMRAN
      ------------------------------------------------------------------------

      November 7, 2003

      Prosecutors Lay Out Case Against Scientist in Plague Case
      By KENNETH CHANG

      UBBOCK, Tex., Nov. 6 ‹ In the first four days of the trial of a Texas Tech
      professor accused of lying to federal agents when he reported that cultures
      of plague bacteria were missing from his laboratory in January, federal
      prosecutors have argued that the professor deliberately contrived the story
      to distract university investigators closing in on ethical and financial
      improprieties in his research.

      Until now, the prosecutors had not spelled out how they planned to tie
      together the 69 seemingly disparate counts, which include lying, smuggling
      and fraud, or offered their theory about why the professor, Thomas C.
      Butler, might have lied about the missing vials.

      The case started as a bioterrorism scare, but now encompasses university
      research policies, the correct way to fill out shipping forms for biological
      materials and the propriety of what prosecutors called "shadow contracts"
      between Dr. Butler and drug companies.

      "Things were not as rosy at Texas Tech as you might think for a tenured
      professor," Robert Webster, a United States attorney, told the jury during
      opening arguments on Monday in the Federal District Court here. "As a matter
      of fact, Dr. Butler was in trouble."

      The university's institutional review board, which ensures the safety of
      clinical research, had suspended him from all such research involving humans
      last November. That would include the plague bacteria, because they were
      grown from samples taken from patients in Tanzania, prosecutors said.
      Meanwhile, auditors had been trying to meet with Dr. Butler to inquire about
      the financing of his studies, but Dr. Butler had been stonewalling,
      prosecutors said.

      Dr. LaJean Chaffin, associate vice president for research at the university,
      sent Dr. Butler a letter on Jan. 9 reaffirming the suspension. That
      pressure, prosecutors say, led Dr. Butler to "lash out" at Texas Tech.

      Four days later, on Jan. 13, Dr. Butler, the chief of the infectious
      diseases division at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center,
      reported to the laboratory safety officer that 30 of 180 vials of plague
      were missing. Dr. Butler "requested that law enforcement not be contacted,"
      Mr. Webster said.

      "It's telling," Mr. Webster added. "He wanted to throw a monkey wrench in
      the internal affairs of Texas Tech."

      The next evening, 60 F.B.I. agents searched for the missing vials. On Jan.
      15, Dr. Butler signed a handwritten affidavit saying he had actually
      accidentally destroyed the vials. He was then arrested.

      Yesterday, lawyers for Dr. Butler showed an e-mail message from him saying
      that he was interested in moving to the University of Texas in Galveston and
      that he was on the verge of receiving a two-year grant from the Food and
      Drug Administration for his plague research. The defense lawyers questioned
      why Dr. Butler would endanger his career by lying about missing plague.

      In cross-examination, Texas Tech police officers and agents for the Federal
      Bureau of Investigation agreed with Dr. Butler's defense lawyers that he had
      cooperated.

      The defense also argued that the university had been aware of the plague
      research, that the Board of Regents had approved Dr. Butler's sabbatical in
      2001 to work in Tanzania on the plague, and that a university committee had
      approved his laboratory for plague research.

      Also at issue are numerous contracts in which drug companies split the
      payment for clinical trials between Texas Tech and Dr. Butler. University
      officials were unaware of the contracts with Dr. Butler. The university
      typically takes 20 percent of the money for overhead costs.

      One prosecutor, Michael Snipes, said the arrangement meant that "in effect,
      the defendant is being paid twice for the same work."

      Defense lawyers contended that the second contract could be considered
      consulting work, which was allowed by the university.

      Dr. Butler is also charged with shipping plague samples without the proper
      permits and illegally bringing the samples back from Tanzania. He had driven
      samples in his car to two federal laboratories: an office of the Centers for
      Disease Control and Prevention in Fort Collins, Colo., and the Army Medical
      Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Maryland.

      Yesterday, a defense lawyer, Charles Meadows, introduced e-mail messages
      from researchers at the two laboratories acknowledging Dr. Butler's plans
      before his trips. The messages did not tell him that under new regulations,
      he could not do that.

      The case has drawn protests from the scientific community. On Monday, four
      Nobel Prize winners ‹ Dr. Peter Agre of Johns Hopkins University; Torsten
      Wiesel, a former president of Rockefeller University; Sidney Altman of Yale
      University; and Robert Curl of Rice University ‹ issued a statement strongly
      critical of the prosecution.

      The four said: "Rather than demonstrating the importance of strict care in
      the handling of research materials ‹ something that all right-minded
      scientists appreciate ‹ the determination to convict Dr. Butler and put him
      in jail sends a strong message to the scientific community that runs counter
      to the best interests of our country and scientific research."

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