In 2002, Antonio Lasaga, an extremely eminent scientist then at Yale, was sentenced to 20 years on charges of possession of child pornography and sexual assault against a minor. Given the focus of the present controversy on the Penn State football program, it is instructive to revisit the handling of a scandal involving a star academic. Lasaga had relevant connections to Penn State, as it was at Penn State that he achieved academic stardom in the late 1970s. At his sentencing, no one from Yale stood up for him, but three professors from his past, two from Penn State and one from Harvard, spoke on his behalf (all three being described by the prosecution as the most out of touch he had ever encountered). After his imprisonment, Lasaga has continued to publish academic articles with Penn State associates and presently lists his academic correspondence address as State College PA. It’s a remarkable story that deserves a serious look by someone.
Lasaga was born in Cuba in 1949 and moved to the US at the time of the Cuban Revolution. He attended Princeton, graduating in 1971, described by a professor at the time as not simply the most talented in his year, but the “most creative student at Princeton in the past 10 years”. He started grad school at Harvard in 1971 and by October 1971 had already published an article in Science as lead author (co-authored by Heinrich Holland who spoke on his behalf in 2002.) Lasaga received his Masters in 1973 and PhD in 1976. He joined the Penn State faculty in 1977.
Lasaga’s specialty was kinetic reactions in geochemistry and, during this period, Lasaga developed what was later described as “his beautiful analysis of the mathematics of non-steady-state diagenesis” and he “solved the diffusion equation for the exchange of cations between neighboring crystals of silicate minerals during retrograde metamorphism”. Lasaga published a series of outstanding articles and, in 1979, at the age of just 30, was awarded the Clarke medal by the Geochemical Society. During this time at Penn State, Lasaga published several articles with Hiroshi Ohmoto of Penn State. (Ohmoto recurs later at Lasaga’s sentencing hearing and as a coauthor of his most recent articles.)
Lasaga’s dark side also began to emerge around this time. In 1981, he was charged by State College police with inappropriately touching a 9-year old boy and an 11-year old boy at a local pool. Lasaga denied the charges, passed a lie detector and the charges were later dropped. At a pre-sentencing hearing nearly 20 years later (in 2000), evidence was given that the 1981 lie detector test was flawed.
Lasaga moved to a new post at the Yale department of Geology and Geophysics (G&G) in 1984 following a visiting professorship in 1982 and continued to publish outstanding articles. In 1986, he was winner of the Mineralogical Society Award – the first winner of both awards. Lasaga married his wife Evelyn around this time. They had two sons, one of whom was born around this time.
In 1981, Lasaga had published a seminal memoir on geokinetics, later much expanded into his 800 page magnum opus, published in 1998, “Kinetic Reactions in the Earth Sciences”. The opening motif of the book was : “Old geochemists never die; they just reach equilibrium”.
Lasaga’s darker side continued. According to a report in 2000 here, in 1986, Lasaga, then a Yale professor, was accused of inappropriate touching at a Hamden, Connecticut YMCA pool. The complaint apparently never went further than YMCA officials. Five years later, in the same pool, another parent complained to the staff that Lasaga had molested her son. Again that complaint went no further. As at 2000, Hamden police supposedly had no record of either complaint.
In the early 1990s, Lasaga’s demons intensified and his story now begins to be documented in case reports and judgements.
In 1991, he volunteered for a mentoring program with the New Haven Board of Education. The Board does not appear to have done any background checks, reasoning that, if he was “good enough” for Princeton, Harvard and Yale, he would be good enough for the New Haven Board. The young boy so mentored was accompanied by Lasaga to many events. According to a 2004 judgement, at some time between 1992 and 1997, Phillip Ihinger, a junior Yale academic now in Wisconsin, observed Lasaga and the abused child in delicto but did not do anything about it:
Ihinger, a Yale University professor testified at his deposition that at some point between 1992 and 1997, he saw the plaintiff with his pants down by his ankles in front of the defendant Antonio Lasaga in a classroom at Yale University. Ihinger did not report this incident to anyone until 1998, days before Lasaga was arrested for sexually assaulting the minor plaintiff.
In 1997, Ihinger was co-author with Lasaga in “Influence of water on nucleation kinetics in silicate melts”. In early 1998, Ihinger joined Jeffrey Park as co-leaders of Yale Geology and Geophyics course GG120b “Global Change”. Park later emerged from the debacle as a leader of the department’s effort to recover from the scandal and was quoted on a number of occasions in later articles. In the early 1990s, Park had co-authored several articles with Michael Mann, then a graduate student in the Yale G&G department, receiving his PhD in May 1998.
In October 1998, Lasaga’s secret life finally began to unravel as described in a 2004 appeal decision
On October 23, 1998, Victor Sletten, a Yale graduate student, informed Paul Gluhosky, a Yale employee responsible for ensuring that the geology department computers were functioning properly, that another student, Ian McGuinness, had notified Sletten that the defendant had downloaded child pornography onto his geology department office computer, referred to as “the sandbox computer.” 4 Consequently, Sletten decided to monitor the defendant’s download activity.
The “sandbox computer” refers to Lasaga’s geology department computer, which had a network address of “sandbox.geology.yale.edu.” Curiously, this is still shown as Lasaga’s email address in his profile as a participant in the NASA Astrobiology program.
The case report goes on to describe events leading up to Lasaga’s arrest:
From October 23 through October 30, 1998, Gluhosky continued to monitor when the defendant downloaded new material into the file directory in which the other images had been discovered. On October 30, Gluhosky notified his direct supervisor, Professor Ron Smith, that he believed the defendant was downloading child pornography. Smith instructed him to continue monitoring the defendant’s computer activity. On November 2, Gluhosky and Smith met again and decided to contact Yale legal counsel, who referred Smith to Russell Kozak, a lieutenant with the Yale University police department, and Daniel Rainville, a detective with the Yale University police department. Smith informed the officers of what Gluhosky had told him regarding the defendant’s computer activity. On November 3, Gluhosky met Kozak and Rainville at the Yale police department and told them that he believed that the defendant had used his comuter to acquire child pornography.
Kozak and Rainville of the Yale police department immediately notified FBI agent Lisa Tutty, who in turn notified the US attorney. Warrants to search Lasaga’s residence at Yale (Saybrook College) were obtained:
On November 3, 1998, Lisa Tutty, an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), met with Kozak and Rainville at the Yale police department. Tutty reviewed and copied the materials, including the logs, compact discs, and printouts of the images that were on the disc that Gluhosky had provided to Kozak and Rainville. At the end of the meeting, Tutty instructed the Yale police department not to do anything further until she talked to someone in the United States attorney’s office. On November 4, Tutty telephoned Gluhosky and they discussed the same information that she had discussed with Kozak and Rainville. During the conversation, Gluhosky informed Tutty that the defendant had downloaded more child pornography that afternoon.
On November 5, 1998, Tutty filed an affidavit in support of an application for “a warrant to search the premises known as 90 High Street, New Haven, Connecticut, also known as the residential quarters of the Master of Saybrook College and attached office ․ and to seize fruits, instrumentalities and evidence of and concerning violations of title 18 of the United States Code, § 2252A (a)(5) ․” 7 That same day, United States Magistrate Judge William I. Garfinkel signed a search warrant authorizing the search of “[t]he premises known as the residential quarters and office for the Master of Saybrook College, Yale University, located at 90 High Street, New Haven, Connecticut as depicted below.”
On November 6, 1998, Tutty and eight to ten other law enforcement personnel arrived at the Saybrook College Master’s House at 90 High Street to execute the search warrant. Because the defendant did not respond to repeated requests, telephone calls, and doorbell rings, the agents forced their way in through the front door. As they entered the first floor of the residence, they encountered the defendant, who was descending the stairs. Tutty informed the defendant that they had a search warrant for the premises and interviewed him while other law enforcement members searched the premises.
The raid led to the discovery of 150,000 child pornography files on Lasaga’s computers and to what was then described as Lasaga’s resignation (though he remained as a tenured employee for nearly three more years.) Yale authorities were at first evasive about the reasons. On Nov 11, 1998, the New Haven Register reported as shown below. Richard Brodhead, later the Duke University President who precipitously condemned the lacrosse team, told the Yale community that Lasaga was leaving for “personal reasons”. He described Lasaga as “an extraordinarily energetic and devoted master, as well as a popular teacher and a leading scholar in the field of environmental sciences”. An article by the Philadelphia Inquirer a few months later quoted Brodhead as saying that Lasaga was “a man of intellectual eminence. He’s not just another professor; he was a great citizen of this place.” The Nov 10 article in full:
The unexpected resignation of a Yale residential college master has touched off rampant speculation on the campus about the reasons for his abrupt departure.
School officials, however, are saying little about Antonio Lasaga ’s decision last week to leave his post as master of Yale’s Saybrook College.
Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead told students Friday Lasaga was leaving for ‘‘personal reasons,’’ and urged them not to inquire about his sudden departure.
A professor in the geology and geophysics department, Lasaga asked for and was granted a leave of absence from the faculty, Brodhead said Monday.
‘‘I announced he was leaving for personal reasons and that’s all I intend to say,’’ said Brodhead .
Lasaga has been replaced by Harry Adams, a professor at the Yale Divinity School who from 1987 to 1997 was master of Yale’s Trumbull College.
Adams said he received a call from Yale President Richard C. Levin asking if he’d be interested in filling in for the departing Lasaga.
‘‘The president didn’t say why he was leaving and I didn’t ask,’’ Adams said Monday.
Lasaga could not be reached for comment.
In a letter to the Saybrook College community, Brodhead describes Lasaga as ‘‘an extraordinarily energetic and devoted master, as well as a popular teacher and a leading scholar in the field of environmental sciences.’’
‘‘I recognize that this news comes as a surprise, but one of the meanings of community is that people turn to one another in times of transition,’’ the letter states.
Lasaga had been master of Saybrook College, one of Yale’s 12 residential colleges, for the past three years.
‘‘Nobody is saying anything about why he left, which is unusual,’’ Yale geology professor Jeffrey Park said.
Yale college masters oversee the daily operation of the dormitory facility and advise students.
On Nov 13, 1998, the Yale Herald had more on the story revealing details of the child pornography discovered at Lasaga’s residence. One of those interviewed was Daniel Schrag (who’s been mentioned from time to time here) then at Harvard. Schrag had been a former student of Lasaga’s and, like everyone else, was taken aback by the revelations.
Among the computer files were videotapes of Lasaga performing sexual acts with the boy that he had been mentoring. In mid December, Lasaga was arrested with the next events proceeding under seal because of the involvement of a minor. The Philadelphia Inquirer reviewed events in early 1999 here.
Adding to the confusion at Yale at the time, a month later, student Suzanne Jovin was brutally murdered, with her body was found about two miles from campus, in one of New Haven’s finest residential neighborhoods. She had been stabbed in the back 17 times.
In 1999, the boy (Joseph Doe) and his mother sued Lasaga, Yale, and the New Haven Board of Education, which oversaw the volunteer program. Lasaga did not contest the civil lawsuit and a large judgement was awarded against him. However, he had transferred his house to his (now divorced) wife and was by then in prison and the judgement remains unsatisfied. The claim against the New Haven Board was dismissed on the basis that they were not negligent in being unaware of the incidents buried deep in Lasaga’s past. The case against Yale turns mainly on whether Ihinger, then a young academic, was negligent in failing to inform authorities. Yale has denied liability. In 2010, Yale made a variety of motions seeking to dismiss the action, all of which were denied.
After his arrest, legal proceedings against Lasaga moved slowly for several years. There were both federal charges (child pornography) and state charges (sexual assault.) The federal charges got tied up pending constitutional arguments about the constitutionality of federal legislation on child pornography. Lasaga also contested the legality of both the search and warrant, claiming that the initial examination of his computer by the Yale IT students had been done without a warrant.
After his arrest, Lasaga refused to resign from Yale and continued on full pay as a tenured professor (“academic freedom”). For the first time in its history, under rather archaic provisions, Yale convened a tribunal to revoke Lasaga’s tenure. Even after this ruling, Lasaga filed an appeal to the Yale corporation. (Jeffrey Park is quoted in a contemporary article as exasperated.) In March 2001, Lasaga’s tenure was finally revoked and he was fired.
The rebuilding of the Yale department began in September 2001, with the hiring of more climate-related staff, inclduing Steven Sherwood and David Evans.
In February 2002, nearly 3 1/2 years since his arrest, Lasaga pleaded guilty. At his sentencing hearing, no one from Yale spoke on his behalf, but his former mentors and associates from happier times at Harvard and Penn State spoke up – see here here. Heinrich Holland, coauthor of his first article in 1971, spoke on his behalf, as did Hubert Barnes and Hiroshi Ohmoto of Penn State. The Hartford COurant quoted Ohmoto as follows:
I don’t believe Tony had any sexual interest in boys,” said Princeton Professor Hiroshi Ohmoto, suggesting that the abuse was merely a misunderstanding.
Prosecutor David Strollo summarized the professors contribution as follows:
In all my years as a prosecutor, I have never heard people deliver comments so disconnected with reality.
Lasaga has continued to write and publish academic articles. In 2002, just before sentencing, he stated:
But Lasaga said he does not see incarceration as the end of his career as a scientist.
“No matter where I am, I can always contribute [to science] at the top level in the world,” he said.
And, despite his conviction, Lasaga has continued to publish regularly in academic journals. One editor, Frank Podosek, opposed publishing his articles, but was overruled by his editorial board. One blogger described the situation in 2001 as follows:
Lasaga’s defenders have pointed out that no one has impeached Lasaga’s academic work, either in his role an associate editor of the American Journal of Science and editor in chief of Chemical Geology, or as the author of several important books on geophysics and kinetic theory. Frank Podosek, the editor of the academic journal of the Geochemical Society, has tried to prevent Lasaga from publishing more work, but has been overruled by his board. From the perspective of the academy, Lasaga’s personal failings are apparently a matter for the man to deal with in his own private way, and in no way prevent him from living as a respected member of the scientific community.
The blogger drew attention to the startling contrast between the apparently more severe attitudes of academics towards Bellesiles than towards Lasaga.
In the early 2000s, Lasaga renewed his association with Penn State’s Ohmoto (with whom he had published in the early 1980s. In 2001, he and Ohmoto made a presentation to the 2001 Goldschmidt conference entitled “Modeling the Long-Term Evolution of Atmospheric Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide”. Over the next decade, they would publish articles in the European Journal of Mineralogy (2003, 2004), American Mineralogist (2004), Journal of Physical Chemistry B (2005), Earth and Planetary Science Letters (2008), Geochimica Cosmochimica Acta (2008), Chemical Geology (2008), among others, and make conference presentations at the Goldschmidt Conference, AGU (2006, 2009) and most recently at the Geological Association of America (October 2011.)
Lasaga’s address for most of the period has been “State College PA 16801”. In one of his earlier papers, he was listed as “Geosolutions International”, a company owned by Ohmoto. More recently, he is shown as “Geokinetics, State College”.
What is the moral to all of this?
If nothing else, the case stands against the simplistic attribution of the Penn State scandal to football. Lasaga’s case had nothing to do with athletics but has a number of features in common with the football scandal, including the moral paralysis of a young employee. While Yale moved promptly to involve police in November 1998, that they were seeking to dismiss civil claims through motions in 2010 is hardly a contribution to healing the damage perpetrated by Lasaga.