NYT: Prosecution of a scientist in America
- PROSECUTORS WORK OVERTIME TO EARN POINTS BY PROSECUTING ANYONE ON WHOM THEY
CAN LAY HANDS ON BECAUSE IT IS A STEP TOWARDS UPWARD MOBILITY.
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,
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
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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