In an unprecedented criminal conviction, a former UC Irvine computer scientist pleaded guilty Wednesday to a conflict of interest for receiving secret payments from Japanese companies funding his academic research.
Tatsuya Suda, 59, pleaded to a single felony in Orange County Superior Court, Santa Ana, in a deal with the district attorney’s office, also included paying more than $400,000 in restitution and costs to the university.
Dressed in a casual sport coat, tie and white athletic shoes, Suda made his plea to Judge Robert R. Fitzgerald, who in addition to leveling the fines placed the once eminent professor on three years probation.
By making the plea, Suda avoided a maximum sentence of three years incarceration. He had spent several months in county jail after his arrest in late 2012.
A native of Japan who is not a United States citizen, Suda also could face deportation for the conviction, although authorities said that might not occur because the offense wasn’t serious enough.
Additionally, UC Irvine reportedly recovered some rights to patents and associated royalties that were uncovered during the university’s internal investigation, which dated to 2009. Details about any inappropriate transfer of technology weren’t available, because they were part of a confidential settlement between Suda and UC Irvine.
A longtime faculty member with full tenure in UC Irvine’s Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, Suda is the first UC professor criminally convicted of conflict of interest involving research funding, according to state officials.
Though he retired in 2010 soon after state authorities launched an investigation of him for conflicts of interest, Suda’s UC Irvine connections weren’t completely severed until January last year.
Suda’s conviction is the culmination of a stunning fall from grace for a scientist who had enjoyed a stellar career in both Japan and the U.S.
He was considered a world leader in computer architecture research and credited with the first scientific article proposing the use of biological molecules in computer systems. For three years ending in 1999, he directed a computer network division at the U.S. National Science Foundation in Virginia, putting him at a pinnacle of such research.
But after a whistleblower complaint in 2009, a UC Irvine investigation found that their coveted faculty member was engaging in covert relationships with major Japanese firms, which also funded some of his research projects.
That probe led to Suda paying a $14,000 settlement in 2011 with the California Fair Political Practices Commission — which in addition to its role as a political watchdog also monitors professor conflict issues at the UC and Cal State systems.
Subsequently, a UC Irvine police investigation was sent to the DA’s office.
“Professor Suda had secret ties to Japanese corporations and financial institutions that communicated with him directly and in Japanese,” according to the Feb. 25 felony complaint by deputy district attorney Joe Williams.
“Because of the clandestine relationship with these companies, Suda was able to hide his financial relationship and payments from UC Irvine.”
Suda was originally charged last April with six felonies of conflict of interest for receiving more than $325,000 from KDDI Inc. of Japan.
At one point UC attorneys argued to prosecutors that a 2002 law — designed to protect selection of professors from political tampering — exempted teaching professors form prosecution for conflict of interest charges. Prosecutors rejected this argument.
In his plea agreement for the single felony, Suda acknowledged receiving more than $7,500 in undisclosed funds from a research funding firm.
A resident of Fallbrook, Suda is married to singer Rita Coolidge, a Grammy award winner in the 1970s with her then husband, Kris Kristofferson. She accompanied Suda at Wednesday’s hearing.
In contrast to the mild-mannered Suda’s appearance in the Santa Ana courtroom was a disturbance involving audience members threatening another defendant with death.
Neither Suda nor his attorney, Mia Frances Yamamoto of Los Angeles, would comment after the plea. A UC Irvine spokeswoman said officials who could comment weren’t available today.
Rex Dalton is a San Diego-based journalist who has worked for the San Diego Union-Tribune and the journal Nature. You can reach him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.