Japanese judge scuttles Clinic spy case


John Mangels
Plain Dealer Science Writer

A Japanese judge effectively has ended U.S. prosecutors' hopes of trying a former Cleveland Clinic scientist for industrial spying that wrecked the medical center's Alzheimer's research.

The Tokyo High Court on Monday rejected an American government request that Dr. Takashi Okamoto be returned to Cleveland to face economic espionage and conspiracy charges.

It reportedly is the first time in the 24-year history of the U.S.-Japan extradition treaty that Japan has refused to hand over a criminal suspect.

Japan does not have a comparable economic espionage law. The Tokyo judge determined there was no reason to believe Okamoto intended to benefit his new employer - a research insti tute funded by the Japanese government - by stealing or destroying biological materials from the Cleveland Clinic.

The decision apparently closes the strange, lengthy and unprecedented spying case, which scientists and government officials in both countries have closely followed.

Okamoto's indictment and arrest warrant remain in effect, but unless he voluntarily returns, U.S. authorities concede there is nothing more they can do.

"There is no appeals process that we are aware of," said Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra. Okamoto, who had been held at the Tokyo Detention House since Feb. 2 while the High Court considered his extradition, was released. His lawyer told wire service reporters that Okamoto would return to practicing medicine in the northern Japanese city of Kitami.

Okamoto had been a respected scientist at the Clinic, where he supervised a team conducting Alzheimer's research. He quit and left for Japan in July 1999 as an FBI investigation was start ing. He was indicted along with a colleague in May 2001.

The researchers were charged with conspiring to steal trade secrets to benefit a foreign government. It was the first time prosecutors attempted to convict anyone under the economic espionage section of a 1996 law to protect sensitive material and technologies.

Prosecutors claimed Okamoto took proprietary Clinic genetic material and sent it to his new Tokyo employer. He destroyed or sabotaged other samples, according to the indictment.

Okamoto's alleged accomplice agreed last May to plead guilty to a lesser charge of lying to an FBI agent, in return for testifying against Okamoto.

The lack of a major conviction in the high-profile Clinic case, coupled with relatively few economic espionage prosecutions since the law took effect, "sends a message to potential thieves that it's still open season on America's trade secrets," said author and crisis management consultant Steven Fink.

Prosecutors need to be better trained and more aggressive in such cases, and the U.S. government should seek better extradition agreements, said Fink, whose Los Angeles-based Lexicon Communications advises corporate clients on economic espionage and other issues. Meanwhile, "businesses need to be more proactive in protecting their trade secrets, so that you remove the temptation and opportunity for a thief."

New York attorney and former federal prosecutor Peter Toren said the United States should work with its global economic partners for more consistent laws to protect trade secrets.

Toren, who helped write the economic espionage law, said the small number of cases are the result of several factors: the complexity of trade secret investigations; the government's need to be sensitive to foreign policy implications; and the shift of law enforcement resources to fight terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: jmangels@plaind.com, 216-999-4842
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