Friday, June 22, 2012

Funny thing -- what's the point of stealing chemicals?

Maybe I could steal some of these... yeah, that's the ticket!
Credit: olx.com
One thing about working at small companies (as opposed to massive multinational corporations) is that you get to see all the foibles of the front office people. I'm reminded of that when I read this story about a controller of a Pittsburgh Acura dealership:
PITTSBURGH - A former controller of Baierl Acura stole more than $10 million through bad record-keeping and bank transfers and bought houses, vehicles, stocks, gold, jewels and furniture for herself and others, according to federal prosecutors. Patricia K. Smith, 58, of Cranberry Township, pleaded guilty to a wire fraud charge, and U.S. District Judge Gustave Diamond sentenced her to 6 1/2 years in prison on Wednesday morning.... 
[snip] "According to information presented to the court, among the items Smith purchased were $1.8 million billed to American Express for private jet charters; travel to seven countries in Europe and four islands in the Caribbean; $44,500 for four club level tickets along with full hospitality at Super Bowl XLV; $32,500 for a luncheon for six people prepared by Food Network star Ina Garten at her barn in East Hampton, NY; $5,000 for "The Vatican Package," which included Mass in Papal Audience with VIP seating, airfare for four, VIP tour of the Vatican Museum with a private tour guide, and a private tour of the Sistine Chapel with family before it is open to the public; and $2,500 for a Phantom of the Opera experience, including costume fitting, wig fitting, an escort on-stage during the Hannibal Opera sequence, and four seats for the performance."
Of course (to any current or former employers reading this), I've never seen any stealing on that scale (or on any scale, I might note.) I'm also reminded of Anthony Bourdain's first workplace and how the cooks treated the restaurant's supplies:
A couple nights a week, the chef would back his Volkswagen van up to the kitchen door and load whole sirloin strips, boxes of frozen shrimp, cases of beer, sides of bacon into the cargo area. 
You don't see a lot of stealing by chemists, apart from the odd IP case now and again. I'd like to think that that you don't get more stealing by chemists  because (other than sheer honesty) people are paid enough (juuuust enough) and they can run the cost/benefit analyses in their heads. Also, there isn't anything to steal. Who wants a home 20-L rotovap? Not me. 

So, readers, I'm asking. What's the best story of stealing from chemistry/pharma-related employers that you've seen? Regale me, I beg of you. 

40 comments:

  1. Not 20L of course, but regular Buchi bath would make a great sous vide cooker. I still regret not snagging one from the old lab - they were closing the shop anyway.

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  2. As I recall, at a Big Pharma I used to work for, we needed to lock up the disposable syringes because the janitorial staff was notorious for stealing them. I was always horrified by the idea of shooting up with an 18G needle.

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  3. Wait, she stole a trip to a papal Mass? That'd make for an awkward confession...

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  4. Not sure if this counts since it's not industrial, but Jason West lifted a TON of stuff from his grad school lab to manufacture meth in his basement. If I can find the link, I'll post the news video showing just how stupid he was. He not only had an entire lab's worth of roundbottoms and Erlenmeyers, he had several brand new 4L bottles of solvent and even a vacuum pump.

    http://pubs.acs.org/cen/science/86/8636sci2.html

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    1. This video?
      http://www.mercedsunstar.com/2008/12/20/603526/former-uc-merced-student-gets.html

      West didn't actually manage to manufacture much meth, though--or, at least, the DOJ lab only found a precursor when they tested samples. The DA told me that he thought West was high when West was trying to cook it. West wound up pleading guilty to felony conspiracy to make meth.
      (http://cenblog.org/2008/09/student-accused-of-making-meth-agrees-to-plea-deal/)

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    2. That's the one! Thanks Jyllian

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  5. What about those quirky types that feel the need to stash carbon tet in their garages?

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  6. While working at a flavor house some of the employees would steal large containers of ethanol (it did not contain any denaturants as it was used in food production, in fact, it was Kosher). This I am assuming they did for their own enjoyment and not for monetary gain...

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  7. Guess I confess was a lab thief as I used NMR to figure out the ratio of solvents in paint stripper (Toluene, MeOH, Acetone and CH2Cl2) and made up a couple times form lab stores in order to refurbish and old desk, table and chairs.

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    1. I've been wondering the same thing. Do you remember the ratios? What did you use for thickener?

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  8. I have two examples

    1) an old boss was know to scavenge whatever was around. when a neighboring company shutdown he grabbed their supply of mercury, about 10 lbs. I feel bad for whom ever has to clean out apartment.

    2) another old boss was the head of chemistry at a startup when the DEA showed up and told senior management that one of the chemists was using the lab, supplies and analytically equipment to make GHB from 1,4 butadiol.

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  9. Caught a meth head trying to steal and ammonia tank from my lab. I was dismayed when I realized that behind all of those facial sores and dirty clothes she was a former colleague. She is in prison now and luckily not dead.

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  10. Over the last few jobs, I've seen a wide array of "borrowing" behavior. From NMR tubes, vials, and sets of gloves / masks (for home repair?), to vermiculite (gardens), to silica gel (basement drying), to IPA (nail polish remover?), and the aforementioned needle depletion.

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  11. In grad school I heard that a junkie walked into a lab down the hall and flashed a gun while trying to buy some "red phosphorus."

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  12. I don't want to give details but I remember working at a large, international lab and seeing shopping bags full of office supplies being carried away from our stockroom. Someone there told me that it was a normal thing for people on their last day to load up on stuff at the supply room. There's no oversight. I'm guessing the loss is on the order of thousands every year.

    At my current job I don't see anything worse than the random pen being taken home by accident. I think it has a lot to do with the culture of the workplace.

    The place I mentioned above had many, many other problems going on with it, including the requirement that we bribe the person who ordered supplies. Said person's regular salary was higher than all of the scientists'. And requests for time off, even unpaid, were usually denied. I was denied a request for unpaid leave to attend a family member's funeral. And we were regularly told that we were disposable. So I can see where people didn't respect them.

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  13. OK, here is a story from old commie times: As a freshman in a chemistry program in Prague, I got to visit an acrylate ester production plant in Sokolovo, Czechoslovakia. It was beautiful oil-refinery kind of oversized affair, and it was beautiful shiny. It was a plant built by Japanese, and finished about a year before our visit. We were told alarming stories about mishaps that happened especially at the beginning, when they were starting the full-scale production:

    There was a stage where the acrolein was oxidized over a platinum mesh with air, to acrylic acid, which was then esterified and the stuff was distilled. At the beginnin they had lots of problem with stabilizing the acrylates properly and the various parts of the reactors had tendency to polymerize up and turn their content into a sticky toxic stinky acrylate goo - which meant to stop the process, open up the reactors/distillation columns and dig out the polymeric goo. One day the reactor for the acrolein-to-acrylic acid oxidation gued up, again, so they took it apart and hacked out the polyacrylic acid and since they could not finish the clean up work in on day they left the disassembled catalytic oxidation unit out in the open, taken apart, to continue on it the next morning. The next day they completed the cleaning and only then noticed that the platinum mesh catalyst was missing, all 30kilos of platinum metal. To make the story short, there was a maintenance/sweeping guy working at the plant and he saw this blackened but otherwise quite pretty, pliable and heavy mesh on the heap so he loaded it on his cart, took it home and repaired his rabbit cages and vegetable garden fence with all that platinum.

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    1. This round clearly belongs to Milkshake!

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    2. That sounded quite a bit like Chekhov's malefactor.

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  14. I currently work with someone who has consistently been reported for 'borrowing' supplies, yet has not been reprimanded at all (can't rock the boat!) They've been known to purchase general office/lab supplies, including a digital camera with the company credit card, yet no one ever sees the goods. Their spouse works in a similar field but for another company so they have borrowed things like gas regulators, solvents, glassware which we never see again, and we can only speculate end up staying at the spouse's company. The worst and most recent indiscretion was the disappearance of a $15000 peristaltic pump. I've no idea why upper management refuse to do anything about it.

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  15. http://www.dailytexanonline.com/university/2012/03/19/former-graduate-student-under-investigation-possible-theft-chemical-materials

    I feel like graduate students are often ballsier than industrial chemists.

    Though, speaking of industrial chemists, the famous story of Patrick Arnold comes to mind:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Arnold

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    1. Funny story about Patrick Arnold. I actually met this dude in a bar in Champaign, IL. Saw my buddy's chemistry tshirt (we're organic phd grad students), and he came up to us. Went on this drunken ramble about his "nutritional supplement" business, and the recent article in discovery magazine. Had no idea who we had met until I looked him up later (still have his business card here on my desk).

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  16. hah, i sometimes buy a 500 mL beaker or two as a novelty pint glass from stores (and a 30 mL beaker makes for a pretty popular shot glass)

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  17. Hexanes makes great campstove fuel...

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  18. I'll confess, I took a disposable test tube from my lab to fix my Mom's rain gauge....

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  19. http://www.dailynexus.com/2002-05-14/court-arraigns-student-in-ecstasy-case/

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  20. This company I used to work at had a little shop in the basement where you could go and pick up coffee beans (free of charge) for the machines that could be found in every other floor. One of the administration guys told me that the amount of coffee picked up in the shop per year would about equal each and every person in the building drinking around 7 cups of coffee on 365 days a year.

    On the different note, consumption of printing paper at the same place seemed rather high, too.

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  21. My mother works at a hospital in their anesthesia department, and she would sometimes come home with vials of anesthetic (usually morphine). It was never anything intentional, just one of those "Oh, I grabbed a few vials for a surgery, and forgot to put them back."

    We always returned them, but it was always amusing when she'd get home, pull out her pockets, and have 3-4 vials of controlled substances.

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    1. Huh. You'd think they would have caught that at the change of shift count.

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    2. My sister has had something similar happen to her. She works in an ER and they use so much Ativan that she refers to it as "Vitamin A". Due to this she often has some on her just for ease of access purposes and has forgotten to put it back at the end of her shift and taken some home on accident a few times.

      One time I was over at her place and noticed that her hospital ID card had a little tube taped to it. I said, "What's this?" and grabbed for it and she goes, "That's ammonia, don't squeeze it." Point taken, haha.

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  22. This falls into the friend of a friend category, but I was told of a guy working in product development of photographic film emulsions, all of which are loaded with silver...You can connect the dots (or pixels or...).

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  23. I take about 100 ml of ethanol every few months home. This isn't for drinking purposes: I don't drink enough to justify the cost savings and I don't live in Iran. It's for putting on cuts, mosquito bites, etc... Very useful disinfectant. I planned on taking the precious metals waste brew at the end of my PhD, since I felt like I owned that waste and was paid poorly throughout the PhD, plus I wanted to turn it into a wedding ring, but I was too lazy to electrolyze it to solids. So some company got it and maybe gave the boss a $500 discount when there was easily several grand in there.

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  24. A lab technician I meet during an internship told me the following story about his former lab head at a major chemical company. Every once in a while this guy had to take out a large barrel, fill in DI water and isopropanol and mix up some window cleaning fluid for his boss' car windows. The poor lad also had to put the stuff into the car in question...

    Apparently, this was common practice among the labheads during the days (goes probably 6-7 to years back).

    I just keep wondering: Why would anyone put himself at risk for losing his job over cheap things you can easily buy? Coffee beans, printing paper and window cleaner were the things i have seen/heard personally.

    I did snatch some clean ethanol during my undergrad times. A good strong punch always got the party started. But otherwise, I could not imagine what I would want from my lab. Taking home contaminated equipment that has been exposed to s**t in the lab for ages and has god-knows-what-kind of impurities on it? How are you gone make sure the sous-vide cooker of your dreams doesn't also provide you with the cancer of your lifetime?

    Reading the comments above

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  25. Alarm bells should have rung when new PhD recruit has a surprisingly large textbook collection in his lab office / cubicle (this was a while back). Lazy and poor performance ensues for 6 months with 'it was my technicians fault' type explanations, followed by discovery of 2 whole new Buchi Rotavaps stashed in his lab cupboards. Remedial management, change in position to no supervision at another site results in brand new vacuum pump being discovered in his sports locker... Again, benevolent attempts to avoid firing him finally overcome when he's stopped by security at the old site with the boot of his car filled with lab computers...

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  26. Loved this post! I used to attend auctions for old equipment at my university and could've had a Warburg apparatus cheap (no room for it!). I also tended to take home expired sutures from the veterinary school lab I worked at to put in my rather extensive survival kit backpack. Also, many of my storage boxes say "Fisher Scientific" on the side. I was well known for taking the discarded boxes from outside all the second floor labs. Never took the chemicals though.

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  27. 200 mL's of 100% isopropanol is just the stuff for mixing de-waxed flake shellac
    when re-finishing antique furniture.... like... say... a mahogany cedar chest
    for your unmarried hottie colleague.
    not that I ever borrowed any.
    that would be wrong.

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  28. I steal minuscule ammounts (think 1/4 of an eppendorf) of pretty reagents and some products from my lab. The people I tell this actually look down on this behavior, but I really see no problem. It is going to get thrown away anyway.

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  29. nice blog !! i was looking for blogs related of Educational Lab Equipment . then i found this blog, this is really nice and interested to read. thanks to author for sharing this type of information.

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