Researcher fined $500 for perjury in DNA theft case

Kyodo

A federal district court in Cleveland imposed on Wednesday a $500 fine and 150 hours of community service on Japanese researcher Hiroaki Serizawa, who was accused of stealing genetic materials from a U.S. laboratory in July 1999.

Serizawa is one of two Japanese researchers federal prosecutors in Ohio indicted in May 2001 on charges of stealing genetic materials on Alzheimer’s disease from the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.

During plea bargaining last May, the prosecutors dropped an industrial espionage charge against Serizawa, who pleaded guilty to one count of perjury in return for cooperation with the prosecution.

The prosecutors still have a pending case against the alleged main culprit, Takashi Okamoto, who resigned from the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in July 1999 and returned to Japan, on the charge of industrial espionage.

Federal prosecutors said they are still negotiating with the Japanese government on Okamoto’s extradition to the United States.

The Justice Ministry says it has examined the U.S. investigation documents on Okamoto while monitoring developments in the trial of Serizawa. A senior ministry official said the government is “neutral” on the extradition issue.

Okamoto initially denied taking the gene samples but later admitted to it during an interrogation session at the Japanese government-funded Institute of Physical and Chemical Research in Japan.

He claimed innocence, saying, “The samples have no proprietary nature.”

However, Justice Ministry officials suspect Okamoto’s action constitutes either theft or embezzlement under Japan’s criminal laws as long as the samples had belonged to the U.S. laboratory.

To get an extradition process going, the justice minister will need to order the Tokyo High Public Prosecutor’s Office to file a request with the Tokyo High Court to examine the U.S. request.

If the high court determines a handover is appropriate, it will notify the prosecutor’s office and Okamoto. Following a final decision by the government, the justice minister will order the prosecutors to extradite him within 30 days.

As part of his plea bargain, Serizawa admitted last May that he lied to FBI investigators about his relationship with Okamoto.

“When Okamoto sent me the research samples, he did not mention anything about his own behavior,” Serizawa said after the ruling. “Okamoto has the responsibility to explain at least what exactly has happened, since the case disturbed the public and caused chaos in academic circles.”

Under the plea bargain, Serizawa will remain in the U.S. and serve as a prosecution witness at Okamoto’s trial.

Last June, another Japanese, Kayoko Kimbara, a former Harvard Medical School researcher, was arrested for allegedly stealing advanced genetic materials and information from Harvard’s cell biology department. Federal prosecutors in Boston have so far not indicted her.