Criminal case dropped, but cost was high for ex-Tech professor

Next month will be the seventh anniversary of the darkest moment in Joy Laskar’s life.

It was when Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents raided his Atlanta home and office. Laskar, a celebrated, tenured professor of electrical engineering at the Georgia Tech, was eventually fired and indicted by a state grand jury, accused of misusing university funds and other resources to benefit his private startup. He faced decades in prison and a hefty fine if convicted.

The case never came to a trial. Judge Robert C. I. McBurney tossed it out In October 2016, ruling the five-year statute of limitations had expired; the state had simply brought it too late. It was an unceremonious end to an episode that highlighted how entrepreneurial initiatives in academia can go very wrong.

Laskar decided to speak publicly about the dismissal last week. He had previously remained silent to avoid antagonizing prosecutors, who still hold family items with sentimental value, including a laptop with the only copies of childhood photographs of his three daughters and an unfinished novel by his wife.

“It has been devastating personally, professionally,” Laskar said by phone. The case against him has “had a huge imprint on us as a family to this day. It will never go away.”

Georgia Tech had no comment on the criminal case, but a statement from the university said Laskar’s dismissal came after a faculty committee’s recommendation and then a hearing before a special faculty committee.

“The committee found violations sufficiently egregious to warrant termination. President (G. P. “Bud”) Peterson received the committee’s report and terminated Laskar’s employment. The Board of Regents upheld the Institute’s decision. Laskar’s subsequent employment lawsuit was dismissed by the Federal District Court and the dismissal was affirmed by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals,” Tech’s statement said.

Nick Genesi, a spokesman for the attorney general of Georgia, did not respond to multiple requests from The New York Times for comment.

Laskar had been a high-profile professor who brought in tens of millions of dollars in grants and research contracts from companies and government agencies.

He started chip companies on the side, which Tech encouraged, eager to see successful university spinoffs that had showered riches and prestige on Stanford, MIT and other top computer engineering schools.

His relationship with the university was ruptured when an audit led it to accuse him of using university money improperly to help produce prototype chips for one of his startups, Sayana Wireless. Laskar denied wrongdoing, saying the chips originally served academic purposes.

The indictment on racketeering charges didn’t come until late December 2014, more than four and a half years after the raids on Laskar’s home and office in May 2010.

David S. Ricketts, a professor of electrical engineering at North Carolina State University and a friend of Laskar’s, said the case was “widely discussed in the academic community.” He called Georgia Tech’s response an overreaction.

Professors sometimes operate in an ambiguous middle ground where it can be difficult to separate entrepreneurial and academic work, with graduate students, laboratory space and equipment shared between the two. Unless there is blatant theft, professors who step over the line are usually counseled, not fired and indicted.

“This wouldn’t have happened at MIT or Carnegie Mellon,” said Ricketts, who has worked at both universities, as well as Harvard. “Not because it wouldn’t have happened — they would basically have handled it internally. It became so politically charged.”

Though Laskar never got a chance to rebut the state’s accusations at a trial, he believes dismissal of the case will be helpful.

“We won in the first inning,” said Craig Gillen, his attorney. “If we had had to play the second inning, we would have won in the second inning.”

Now Laskar, 53, lives in Silicon Valley, where he’s working on another wireless chip startup, Maja Systems. He said he had exhausted his family’s savings paying legal fees and couldn’t seek another job in academia with the legal cloud hanging over him. He said it had come up in meetings related to his new startup.

“I think there are some doors that were closed, if you will,” he said, “but overall we’ve been able to move forward.”

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