Scientist gets probation in Clinic espionage case


John Mangels
Plain Dealer Science Writer

It seemed like a simple favor for an old friend, a chance to repay the kindnesses that Dr. Takashi Okamoto had shown over the years.

Would Hiroaki Serizawa take delivery of a couple of boxes of research samples? Store them for a few weeks? It was just for safekeeping, while Okamoto sorted out an employment mess with his bosses at the Cleveland Clinic. No big deal.

Of course Serizawa would do it. He owed Okamoto that. When the packages from Cleveland arrived in July 1999, Serizawa put them in a special super-cold freezer in his University of Kansas Medical Center lab. Okamoto retrieved them five weeks later, on his way to a new job in Japan.

The cost of Serizawa's small courtesy was spelled out by a federal judge in Cleveland yesterday. It could have been years of prison time for his role in what played out as a historic case of economic espionage. Instead, with a deal in which he pleaded guilty to lying to an FBI agent in return for helping prosecutors try to convict Okamoto, the 41-year-old researcher will be on probation for three years, and must pay a $500 fine and do 150 hours of community service.

"Today is the first day to start to rebuild my life," Serizawa told the court. "I deeply regret that my actions . . . have brought me before you today."

Though he is relieved, even happy, with the reduced sentence, Serizawa's reputation is in tatters. News accounts from Kansas City to Cleveland to Tokyo called him an alleged spy. His research money dried up. Graduate students left his lab. His job as an assistant professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center will end next month, with no offer of tenure.

He owes his lawyers and others more than $450,000. He does not know how he will support his wife and young son.

"I spent more than 17 years for this career," he said in an interview. "It suddenly disappeared, destroyed. Nothing is here."

The U.S. government's gain from the high-profile case is less than clear. Four years after Serizawa and Okamoto became the first people ever to be charged in this country with stealing business secrets to benefit a foreign government, prosecutors still do not have an economic espionage conviction. The stolen Clinic material, used in Alzheimer's research, is still missing.

The Justice Department's primary target, Okamoto, remains in Japan. Extradition efforts so far have been unsuccessful. Japan has no comparable espionage law, and some experts doubt Tokyo will be willing to subject Okamoto to foreign prosecution for something that is not a crime in his native country.

Still, prosecutors insist Serizawa's sentencing on the lesser charge sends a strong message. "I think justice was served. This was a significant case in its own right," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Christian Stickan.

Author and Los Angeles-based business consultant Steven Fink disagrees.

In spite of the FBI's warning that 23 countries are actively spying against U.S. firms, Fink notes, the government has prosecuted less than three dozen cases since Congress passed the economic espionage law in 1996. The majority have been domestic affairs; only the Clinic theft and one other have alleged international involvement.

That tally and the lack of a big conviction in the Cleveland case to date "sends a signal to those who would commit economic espionage around the world that the Justice Department and the Economic Espionage Act don't have any teeth. It's essentially open season on economic assets," said Fink, whose book "Sticky Fingers: Managing the Global Risk of Economic Espionage" explored the Clinic case.

Serizawa, while grateful for the support of his family, friends and lawyers, feels profoundly betrayed by his onetime mentor. Okamoto and he had known each other from their time together in Boston in the mid-1990s, when Serizawa was doing post-graduate studies and Okamoto was a rising research star at Harvard. They and their wives socialized together, and the researchers helped each other craft resumes.

When Serizawa fell seriously ill from food poisoning on a trip to Tokyo, Okamoto, a medical doctor, arranged for a better hospital and medical care. Okamoto coached Serizawa and his wife through a difficult pregnancy. "We shared not just professional things, but private things," Serizawa said.

But Okamoto did not share what he was really up to with his departure from the Cleveland Clinic for a job at a research institute funded by the Japanese government, Serizawa said. Okamoto described his loneliness since his wife left him, a rift with his boss and a colleague in his lab, some general concerns about the safety of his research material.

Serizawa said Okamoto did not tell him what Clinic investigators and the FBI had found: that Okamoto had destroyed materials used by his young research assistants, and stolen the rest.

When Okamoto showed up in Kansas City to collect the several hundred vials of samples from Serizawa's freezer, he did an odd thing. He pulled some large test tubes from a suitcase, filled them with tap water and told Serizawa that if anyone from the Clinic came looking, he should give them the dummy samples. And he said he had hired three attorneys, "just in case."

Four years later, Serizawa's own lawyer is amazed at his client's resilience.

"He recognizes that being angry is counterproductive," said John McCaffrey, who with partner Patrick McLaughlin defended Serizawa. "He truly wants to put this behind him. Hiro is a rare breed. He rolled up his sleeves and fought. He's a man of great principle and pride."

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© 2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission. Copyright 2003 All Rights Reserved.