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Last Updated

23 Mar 2004


Source:  Chronicle of Higher Education, March 19, 2004

Researcher Who Was Convicted in Plague Case Is Sentenced to 2 Years in Jail


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 $38,000.

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.