Charges against scientist widened

The federal prosecution of a leading expert on plague has become a showdown between prosecutors determined to make an example of him and scientists who call the case overkill that will discourage bioterrorism research.

Despite recent protests to Attorney General John Ashcroft from the nation's most prestigious scientific bodies, federal prosecutors in Texas expanded the accusations against Dr. Thomas C. Butler yesterday beyond mishandling vials of bacteria and falsely claiming that others were missing.


The charges unsealed yesterday included mail fraud and embezzlement in connection with research he conducted for two pharmaceutical companies. Prosecutors allege that the Johns Hopkins-trained researcher received more than $320,000 in "shadow" payments from the companies that he concealed from Texas Tech University in Lubbock, where he is a professor of medicine.

Butler, 62, pleaded not guilty to the 69-count indictment in Lubbock yesterday and remained free on $100,000 bond.


Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University who recently joined Butler's legal team, said the new charges are an attempt to obscure the fact that the public bioterrorism scare ignited by the FBI's swoop onto the Texas Tech campus in January was unjustified.

"What happened in the Butler case is that by the time the FBI realized there was no bioterrorism conspiracy or danger, the story was already in newspapers around the world," Turley said. "This is a face-saving attempt by the government to secure a conviction at any cost."

Turley said the government is "criminalizing matters that are routinely handled as civil disputes" involving complicated disagreements over how grant money is shared between researchers and the university.

Dr. Donald A. Henderson, founder of the Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies at the Johns Hopkins University and a top federal adviser on bioterrorism, said he is "puzzled" by the scale of the legal assault against Butler.

Noting that some allegations against Butler involve the transport of plague bacteria from lab to lab without proper paperwork, Henderson said he believes that long-standing scientific practices are clashing with new biosecurity regulations.

"I carried a lot of smallpox around in my day in my briefcase," said Henderson, who headed the World Health Organization's smallpox-eradication program in the 1970s. "It was safe, in a double-sealed container, which is probably what Butler did. ...

"The question is, what was Butler's intent?" Henderson said. "Did he intend to use plague as an agent to harm people? No, no one believes that. He's done some very good research on plague. So, my question is, what is the FBI up to here?"

Calls requesting comment from the Justice Department in Washington and prosecutors in Texas were not returned yesterday.


Butler is prohibited by the terms of his release from visiting his laboratory and files at Texas Tech. But last week, by reconstructing his research data from other sources, Butler and colleagues managed to complete and submit to a medical journal, The Lancet, a paper comparing the effectiveness of different antibiotics against plague, said Dr. William B. Greenough III, a professor of medicine and international health at Hopkins.

Greenough said he helped get the paper out only partly because of his friendship with Butler, who did his residency and fellowship at Johns Hopkins Hospital and worked for four years with Greenough in Bangladesh in the early 1980s.

Given the bioterrorist threat, "I felt it was my duty to the American public to get out information on how to treat plague," Greenough said.

Greenough is one of numerous scientists who have complained to the Justice Department about the treatment Butler has received.

In an unusual step, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, Bruce Alberts, and the president of the Institute of Medicine, Harvey V. Fineberg, wrote to Ashcroft on Aug. 15 to say they found the prosecution of Butler "troubling." Without taking a position on Butler's guilt or innocence, they warned that the Justice Department's aggressive approach could backfire.

"We are particularly concerned about the impact that Dr. Butler's case may have on other scientists who may be discouraged from embarking on or continuing crucial bioterrorism-related scientific research," their letter said.


Last week the National Academy's committee on human rights wrote scientists urging them to protest Butler's treatment and donate money for his defense, which it said has already cost him $400,000.

The Butler affair began in January when the scientist reported to Texas Tech officials that 30 vials of plague bacteria were missing from his lab. The university called the FBI, and more than 60 law enforcement agents swept onto the campus, searching labs, talking to employees and questioning Butler long past midnight. The episode was broadcast worldwide.

Finally, at 3 a.m., Butler signed a statement saying that the plague vials "had been accidentally destroyed earlier" and that his report that they were missing was "inaccurate."

Butler's lawyers and supporters say he signed the paper only because FBI agents told him it was necessary so that they could call off the search and go home. He had no idea that the statement would lead to criminal charges, they say.

"To this day he has no memory of destroying the vials," says Butler's sister, Marian Butler, a pharmacist who lives near Annapolis. "That was fed to him by the FBI."

Since January, prosecutors have added more and more charges to the initial false statement allegation. Some counts of the indictment accuse him of breaking regulations governing the import and export of plague bacteria in his work with researchers in Tanzania.


Others allege that he broke rules when he took plague samples to federal labs, including the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick. Some charges are unrelated to science, such as one saying that he claimed excessive expenses on his tax return.

"I've known Tom for 30 years, and he's a very, very decent person and I can't imagine he would ever commit fraud," said Dr. Charles C.J. Carpenter, a professor of medicine at Brown University. "He's probably done more work on plague in the last three decades than anyone in the United States."

Carpenter said that even before the biosecurity crackdown, few American researchers were willing to put up with the arduous travel required to study diseases such as plague, which remain a health threat primarily in Third World countries.

"There's a huge concern that this will drive people out of the field," Carpenter said. "There's a feeling that the Ashcroft group failed to solve the anthrax letters case and now is trying to make an example out of Tom."