Researcher gets probation in FBI probe

By M.R. KROPKO, Associated Press Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) - A researcher was put on probation and fined $500 Wednesday for lying to the FBI in an investigation of economic espionage involving Alzheimer's disease research.
Hiroaki Serizawa, 41, an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Kansas Medical Center, pleaded guilty a year ago to making false statements.
As part of a plea deal, charges against him tied to economic espionage were dismissed Wednesday. U.S. District Judge David Dowd also ordered Serizawa to perform 150 hours of community service.
Serizawa and former Cleveland Clinic scientist Takashi Okamoto, 42, both from Japan, were accused two years ago of stealing biological materials used for researching Alzheimer's disease.
The FBI estimated that the missing materials cost the Cleveland Clinic about $2 million. The Alzheimer's research was halted because of the alleged theft and destruction of genetic materials.
Eileen Sheil, a spokeswoman for the Clinic, on Wednesday declined to comment on the status of its Alzheimer's research.
Okamoto remains charged with conspiracy, economic espionage and interstate shipment of stolen property. Cleveland FBI agent Bob Hawk said Wednesday the Justice Department is trying to complete a request for Okamoto's extradition from Japan.
Serizawa, who will be on probation for three years, called the sentence his chance "to restart my life." He thanked his family and friends for showing support and he said he deeply regrets giving wrong information to FBI agents Sept. 2, 1999, concerning his acquaintance with Okamoto.
That included denying he had recent contact with Okamoto and denying knowing that Okamoto had taken a research position in Japan with RIKEN, a Japanese government-sponsored research facility.
The false statements charge also said he misstated the number of research vials kept and then taken out of Serizawa's research lab to fewer than 10. The FBI says hundreds of Cleveland Clinic research vials were taken.
The maximum penalty for providing false information to the government is five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Under federal sentencing guidelines, Serizawa received a lighter sentence largely because he had no criminal record and he cooperated with the ongoing investigation.
That cooperation has included monitored telephone calls between Okamoto and Serizawa, said Serizawa's lawyer, John F. McCaffrey.
Outside the federal courthouse Wednesday, Serizawa expressed regret over government allegations that Okamoto damaged Cleveland Clinic research.
"As a researcher, he should not have caused harm to research material," Serizawa said.
McCaffrey said Serizawa "feels betrayed by a man (Okamoto) he considered to be a friend and a mentor."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Christian Stickan said Serizawa continues to cooperate with authorities and recently testified before a grand jury. Stickan would not provide details.
The Justice Department and FBI said two years ago that the charges against Okamoto and Serizawa marked the first time the Economic Espionage Act, which took effect in 1996, had been used against any person linked to a research organization funded largely by a foreign country.
Justice Department lawyer Robert Wallace said there has since been a similar case in California involving China.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)