23 Mar 2004
Chronicle of Higher Education, March 19, 2004
Researcher Who Was Convicted
in Plague Case Is Sentenced to 2 Years in Jail
By KATHERINE S. MANGAN
A former Texas Tech University researcher who was
convicted of mis-handling plague samples and cheating the university out of its
share of clinical-research money was sentenced last week to two years in prison
and a $15,000 fine.
Thomas C. Butler, 62, who set off a terrorism scare in January 2003 when he
reported that 30 vials of bubonic-plague bacteria had disappeared from his
university laboratory, was also ordered to pay restitution to Texas Tech of
Dr. Butler had already quit his job as chief of the infectious-diseases
department at the university's Health Sciences Center and surrendered his
medical license. He remains free on bond, but is required to report to the
authorities on April 14.
Dr. Butler declined to comment on the sentence, but his lawyer, Floyd Holder
Jr., said his client was clearly disappointed. "He doesn't want to go to
prison," Mr. Holder said. "He's pretty sad about it."
A jury acquitted Dr. Butler in December on charges that he had lied to federal
authorities about the missing plague samples, but it convicted him on charges
that included embezzlement, theft, and fraud in connection with his contracts
with drug companies. He has not appealed the verdict.
No Financial Harm
Texas Tech officials argued that Dr. Butler had set up a series of "shadow
contracts" with drug companies so that he would not have to pay the university
its share of research money.
Mr. Holder said that his client could have received seven to nine years in
prison under federal sentencing guidelines, but that the judge had reduced the
term, in part, because he did not feel that Texas Tech had suffered financially.
"The judge made it clear that Texas Tech wouldn't have gotten a penny from these
drug companies," Mr. Holder said. "They contracted with Dr. Butler because he
was Tom Butler -- they weren't contracting with Texas Tech."
The medical school's president, M. Roy Wilson, said the judge would not have
ordered Dr. Butler to pay $38,000 in restitution if he did not feel that the
scientist had improperly withheld money.