Japanese Scientist Pleads Guilty To Lying In Espionage Case

By JOE MILICIA, Associated Press Writer

AKRON, Ohio (AP) - A Japanese scientist pleaded guilty Wednesday to lying to the FBI during its investigation of the theft of research materials from the Cleveland Clinic.

Hiroaki Serizawa, a researcher at the University of Kansas Medical Center, and his friend and former Cleveland Clinic scientist Takashi Okamoto were accused of stealing biological materials used for research on Alzheimer's disease.

The FBI has estimated that the missing materials cost the Cleveland Clinic about $2 million in damages. The alleged theft and destruction of genetic materials led to the termination of the research.

Serizawa, 40, of Kansas City, Kan., admitted that he provided false information to the FBI about his relationship with Okamoto.

The government has accused Okamoto of removing research samples from the clinic, bringing them to Serizawa's lab for storage and leaving vials full of tap water in their place.

Serizawa admitted to understating the number of vials of research material Okamoto is accused of stealing.

Serizawa originally said that 10 or fewer vials were taken. Okamoto actually took several hundred vials, according to court documents.

Serizawa also denied knowing that Okamoto had taken a research position with Riken, a Japanese government-sponsored research facility.

Serizawa's attorneys said their client looked up to Okamoto as a mentor.

"Dr. Serizawa was deceived and manipulated by Dr. Okamoto," said Patrick McLaughlin, one of Serizawa's lawyers.

Robert Wallace, a senior trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice, said the government agreed to the plea to get Serizawa's assistance in the case against Okamoto.

No trial date has been set for Okamoto, who is living in Japan.

Federal officials are pursuing his extradition, assistant U.S. Attorney Bill Edwards said.

U.S. District Judge David Dowd did not set a sentencing date for Serizawa. The original indictment against Serizawa will be dropped after he is sentenced for his guilty plea.

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 likely faces up to 6 months in prison with the possibility of probation.

As part of the deal, the Immigration and Naturalization Service agreed not to try to deport Serizawa.

Serizawa said outside the courthouse that he is looking forward to getting back to his research in Kansas. Speaking first in English and then in Japanese, Serizawa said, "This has been a very difficult ordeal for me and my family."

"I'm grateful for the opportunity to remain in the United States," Serizawa said.

Serizawa faced two counts of conspiracy to violate the economic espionage act, interstate transportation of stolen property and making false statements to the government. Okamoto has pleaded innocent to the same charges.

Serizawa's trial was scheduled to begin May 13. It would have been the first criminal prosecution by the U.S. Department of Justice under a 1996 law intended to prevent the theft of trade secrets by foreign governments.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)