Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Updates in the Sangji case: Baudendistel resigns from public commission post

The bizarre gets positively Byzantine (by Brenda Gazzar, Pasadena Star News reporter):
A state investigator believed to have pleaded no contest to a first degree murder charge as a teenager resigned Tuesday from the city's Public Safety Commission after more than a year of service.  
Brian Baudendistel, who did not respond to requests for comment, submitted his resignation letter Tuesday after a reporter made inquiries. "With much regret, I am resigning my appointment as Public Safety Commissioner effective immediately," Baudendistel, whose two-year appointment was confirmed in April 2011, wrote. "It has truly been a pleasure and an honor to serve the City Council and the residents of Temple City." The letter, dated July 27, did not state why he resigned. 
Baudendistel, a senior special investigator for the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration, become the focus of criminal proceedings against UCLA chemistry professor Patrick Harran in the accidental death of a lab worker in 2008.
If this is what it seems to be (and nothing really does, these days), then it seems uncontested (contra his earlier statements to the LA Times) that Investigator Baudendistel was involved in that crime when he was younger. I fail to see how this has bearing on the Sangji/Harran case from a moral or ethical perspective, but it will undoubtedly have bearing on the legal aspects of it -- the defense notes that the arrest of Professor Harran is deeply tied to Mr. Baudendistel's report on the case.

Also, the #SheriSangji case continues to percolate through the internet (and in print?):
More soon on the Sangji case, probably on Friday. 

50 comments:

  1. So now Harran has destroyed two lives. I hope the court of public opinion (chemical public) takes this into account the next time he posts lab openings, gives ACS talks, comes up for tenure....

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    1. 1) Beyond dumb. Baudendistel murdered a guy. Sorry, you don't get a pass for that because your 17 and it happened 15+ years ago. Then he lied about it to get a job. It's Harran and his lawyers fault he got caught?

      2) Harran didn't squirt tBuLi on Sheri. It was an accident. Does he have culpability for not properly training his students? Sure does; but your comment implies willful intent.

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    2. Baudendistel "allegedly" was the person who "supposedly" blah blah blah... Yes, you get a pass if you served your time and your record is cleaned because you were a juvenile at the time and those were the laws in the situation. What more do you want? Apparently the guy had been doing this job for a while so if Harran's (free) lawyers are the first to suddenly pop up with this smear campaign, color me unimpressed.

      If you hand someone a loaded gun, at work, you do have some responsibility towards the outcome. And if you cover your own crimes by taking down a civil servant investigating you using information which in no way exonerates you, you are destroying other people for no reason other than to protect yourself from a fair investigation. So given no admission of culpability or any kind of responsibility, my opinion of Harran has to lower from "some" responsibility to "full" responsibility.

      But as i say below, "if you can call it justice when you have a young woman clinging to life for two weeks with her abdominal wall burned off, and the chemistry departments all shrug and go back to shorts-and-sandals for the students and Wall-Street-level lack of accountability for the faculty, you have a stronger stomach than me." Congratulations, i'm sure you'll do well in law school.

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    3. Mr. Wolf, it seems clear you're not terribly interested in other opinions, but as a journalist, I am.
      One thing I find odd is that many articles cite Baudendistel's "sealed" juvenile records. But its my understanding that "sealing" records for 'crimes of moral turpitude (e.g. murder), is not legally possible in CA after age 14.
      If I was Harran's attorney, I'd really like to see how Baudendistel pulled that off!

      ok, i'm done here.
      best wishes to all.

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    4. Anon: I'm glad you're willing to comment on the blog. I invite you to talk more, or if you're inclined, e-mail me at chemjobber -at- gmaildotcom, and I'd be happy to talk to you on the phone, if you're willing.

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    5. So far Anonymous has claimed to be a chemist, a law student (6:53) and a journalist (8:43). Wow. While Chemjobber values your opinion i do not really have one on the matter of the investigator you are so eager to discredit, simply because his life appears to be entirely irrelevant to the matter at hand.

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    6. Interesting read. Baudendistel's record could not be sealed if he was convicted of a violent crime over the age of 14. So he either a) lied or b) its not him. This can absolutely be used to impeach a witness.

      http://www.shouselaw.com/seal-juvenile-records.html

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    7. Well way to go, Johnny Cochran Junior. My question for you is, can you prove that Pat Harran did not kill someone when he was a minor? Have you looked? Well, don't be so hasty to judge then.

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    8. BW, you miss the point. The defense is not planning to argue that he can not be trusted because he suggested to kill a drug dealer he and his pals ripped off. They are planning to argue that he has lied about it on his job application and therefore any document bearing his signature is suspect, and should be discounted. That the murder plot would not be out of place on Breaking Bad is just an icing on the cake.

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    9. Neither of which speaks to the issues of concern, eg. professorial responsibility, academic lab safety, and the winner-takes-all-except-accountability nature of the game. If a professor knocked over a liquor store or killed his wife (and who's to say Harran hasn't done either of those things) it wouldn't really have any comparable interest since those things wouldn't impact the larger chemical community or speak to how students and foreign guest workers are treated by the academic-industrial complex.

      "Lying" about something that has been legally expunged (if there's no record of something, did it happen?) seems like an interesting legal question but then this is not really a legal blog so to me is simply a distraction and an obfuscation. Since i haven't seen proof of any of this i am not as eager to jump on the bandwagon of assumption of guilt as i see in the comments above.

      Since Anon and the legal team seem so eager to besmear this investigator without regard to the substance of the investigation i despair that any of this is going to be our 'teachable moment' after all. Again if charges against Harran are dropped on a legal technicality none of us win (see the Wired column linked above). No safety reassessment and Harran gets off, but lives with a scarlet letter. "Winning!"?

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    10. I think you are badly mistaken if you think that this trial is about professorial responsibility, academic lab safety, etc. Remember, she was not a student, she was a lab technician, he was not her advisor, he was responsible for her the same way shift manager would be responsible for an operator. And If you think there is going to be a 'teachable moment' in this - I am sorry, you must be delusional - UC system, which could effect a change for the better has already said that all it's planning to do is to generate mounds of paperwork.

      As far as level of interest is concerned we are in luck - there is a Reinscheid case, so we have a chance for a direct comparison. My bet is that arson and murder plot will generate far more coverage than what reporters call just "felony charges".

      Now, you have to understand, the record has not been sealed, and apparently it has not been expunged. Its there. Baudendistel did not try to argue it's someone else record, his resignation for all intents and purposes confirms it was him. By the looks of things he was not convicted but entered into deferred adjudication, but that does not mean that he could omit it from employment application, in fact every application I ever filled out was very specific on this point. You have to understand to mentality, to you and me a thought of lying on a job application would have never occurred, we know that for a person with proper access everything we've ever done is two clicks away. It was not like that even ten years ago but few people remember that. For a jury a witness who would lie about something so easily discovered may easily appear (and be presented) as a pathological liar, and it is a job of the defense to discover these things and use them to the advantage of the client.

      Now, let me reiterate - there is not going to be any safety reassessment, any significant improvement in academic safety, not in UCLA, not elsewhere. I bet that if I went to UCLA right now I would have found a student working alone, in shorts, flip flops, ears plugged with an ipod. No one cares.

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    11. Actually, I think bw is only partially mistaken, in your formulation.

      Harran is up on charges of "willfully violating occupational health and safety standards causing the death of an employee." I think we can agree that Ms. Sangji was under the auspices of academic lab safety practices that were only slightly less lax than average.

      Therefore, you could reformulate the question asked to the jury to being "Was Prof. Harran's application of current academic lab safety practices sufficient to meet California occupational health and safety standards?"

      In the end, though, I fear that you are correct, and nothing will really change, except that some small group of younger chemists will be much more careful when syringing t-BuLi.

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    12. Regarding sealing juvenile records: It was proposition 21, passed in 2000, that prohibited sealing juvenile records for murder or other violent crimes. Prior to that, sealing was possible.

      http://ballotpedia.org/wiki/index.php/California_Proposition_21,_Treatment_of_Juvenile_Offenders_(2000)

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  2. Can someone help me understand the strong bias towards Sangji and against Harran? I haven't followed as closely as some of you, but from my reading it looks like she had enough experience to work with the organolithides (coursework, publications)and chose to follow unsafe practices. Every lab I have worked in I have seen people who take safety very seriously (myself included) and people who do synthesis with wanton disregard. Sure her experience isn't that of someone with a PhD and 5 years in a commercial lab, but I know very few grad student et al. involved in seriously dangerous chemistry with training that high.

    Not trying to start a fight here, but tell me what I'm missing.
    Josh

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    1. Hey, Josh:

      Great question - glad you asked. I think it's because Ms. Sangji was relatively young (23), and relatively inexperienced (just graduated w/her BS). I don't think coursework (unless it's a hands-on lab) prepares a young researcher for lab work that is dangerous; modern lab courses just aren't typically that involved or hazardous. Certainly, with 2 papers (one computational, one peptide chemistry), she was more experienced than the typical 23-year-old researcher, but that falls into "world's tallest midget" territory. So I think she needed more guidance (both actual face-to-face instruction and over-the-shoulder supervision) than she was given, and paid for it with her life.

      I also think Professor Harran has shown something less than total and complete contrition for his (in)actions, undoubtedly due to the suggestions from his/UCLA's legal team and the possibility of a civil suit. (I'm not sure how responsible he should be for their public statements, as well, which have been singularly enraging.) I am not 100% positive that Professor Harran deserves criminal sanction for his (in)actions, but I believe he should share in the blame.

      [Incidentally, I don't doubt there are cultural factors that make Ms. Sangji more sympathetic, and Prof. Harran and UCLA less so. Certainly, if Ms. Sangji was older and more experienced (e.g. if she were a postdoc), I would have been much less sympathetic.]

      I believe that Ms. Sangji, Professor Harran, Professor Harran's group members, UCLA and the academic chemistry at large all deserve varying slices of blame pie. I think what frustrates most commentators is how both Professor Harran and UCLA have lawyered up and refused to acknowledge any responsibility, except when it was to their benefit.

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    2. I agree with everything you just posted, especially the worlds tallest midget. My problem is that there are thousands of cases of folks with less training than this handling agents that are explosive, bioaccumulating, and mutagenic everyday in academia. Heads would roll in industry, but I am not sure there would be criminal charges unless there was a cover-up or fraudulent safety documents. Civil suits would happen for sure, but criminal charges set a new precedent.

      The good news, I guess, is that academia is taking notice. When PIs are accountable they seem a lot more engaged. I can say this first hand as I serve on a departmental advisory committee, which has been very active in ensuring high standards of safety and attempting response to this awful occurrence.

      Josh

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    3. For me, it represents the culture that supports working alone with unusually dangerous materials trying to make materials that are commercially available. If there's no accountability then accidents are inevitable.

      That said, i would be happy to have funding agencies take a proactive stance on this, as Chemjobber recently noted is beginning with postgraduate tracking. If you hold their purse strings, they will do what you want, and wanting an academic lab to have similar safety guidelines to a typical industrial lab is not unreasonable.

      (ps--Another factor is the cult of personalities of PIs, in which they get all the credit and none of the blame. Those who've been around long enough have noted that the Emperor often has no clothes.)

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    4. Because although gross safety violations occur every minute of every day in every academic lab, this time someone did die. Because being so young and so out of her depth she makes a perfect victim. Because in the big scheme of things Harran is nobody and can be taken down. Because it's election year and this story is a great vehicle for self-promotion.

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    5. The current Los Angeles County District Attorney, Steve Cooley, is retiring and not running for reelection. Two deputy district attorneys are competing against each other to fill the spot. Neither of them has been involved in the Sangji case, at least as far as I've seen. Nor have I seen any news stories with either of them commenting on the case.

      As far as previous allegations of Cooley putting the case through for election purposes, he ran for state attorney general in November, 2010. The charges were filed more than a year after that election.

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    6. I think one reason why sentiment runs her way for me at least is the description of the accident. No one in their right mind would handle that amount of tBuLi that way, even with minimal training.

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    7. Jyllian, perhaps the way I worded my last sentence was not the best. Let me try it again.

      "Because it's election year. Because this story is a great vehicle for self-promotion."

      For example, "Jyllian + Sangji" gives ~9000 hits, so it looks like you are getting a decent mileage out of it.

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    8. http://bit.ly/vA2Vj (meant sarcastically, in case there was a question.)

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    9. CJ, two points. First, originally I worded it that way so that I would not offend non-corporate bloggers. Second, while I understand your need to maintain working relationships with C&EN rank and file, remember that one of them is Rudy/Maddie in training.

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    10. Fair enough. Suffice it to say:

      1. Jyllian Kemsley's work on the Sangji case is excellent and what much of my commentary is based on.
      2. I don't think anyone (myself included) is getting any "mileage" out of the Sangji case. Speaking for myself, I see it as a function of blogs to discuss this case.

      If you'd like to discuss your concerns further, I invite you to e-mail me at chemjobber -at- gmaildotcom. Or, keep commenting. Your views are important to me, believe it or not.

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    11. A different anon here - It's Jyllian's job at The Safety Zone to cover safety-related stories, and the Sangji/Harran/UCLA case is probably the biggest story in recent history. Is she not supposed to report on it? Is it her fault that probably half of those search hits are delays in court hearings? Or possibly other writers/bloggers (such as CJ) that reference her work because she is an authority in the field of chemical safety? I am certain that, just as much as any one of us, she would rather this whole thing never happened.

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    12. CJ, and the other guys. I hope both of you realize the difference between writing about the thing that you think is important and doing your job (well). No one is going to stop you from discussing this case, but if tomorrow J. is reassigned to cover the excellent state of chemical employment, which arguably is an area where CE&N needs some serious talent, she'll do that just as well, but you won't hear from her about this case.

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    13. @Anon544
      And, consequently, why then wouldn't someone else be put on this beat. It is C&EN's responsibility to cover this case (and chemical safety). They would continue to do so whether or not Jyllian is the one covering it. What CJ points out, rightly, is that she has done a really thorough job of doing so. This manifests itself not only in her written stories, but also in her blog posts. These posts, which are not seen by as many folks as the C&EN articles, contain a real wealth of information and show the great deal of work she has put into researching the topic.

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  3. Josh,
    I think the community wants to see Harran take responsibility for what happened in his lab. We are irritated with zero accountability for safety in academia, combined with a safety culture that makes these incidents inevitable. If this happened in industry, heads would roll. When students are getting killed in labs, we cannot shoulder them with all the blame. If schools refuse to review their practices voluntarily, they do so at their own peril.

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    1. There's a huge disconnect between how academic and industrial chemists view this - academics think he's being railroaded for an accident that could have happened anywhere, while industrial chemists know they'd be fired and likely prosecuted if an underling died in a similar manner. As an industrial chemist myself, I'm horrified at the recklessness that was acceptable when I was in grad school.

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  4. Badwolf, I fail to see how it's Harran's fault that the lead investigator on his case plead nolo to a first-degree murder charge as a juvenile and then decided to lie about it on his background investigations and his job applications. Harran's lawyers didn't go out looking for this dirt, it was the DA who discovered it. And yes, it sucks that the investigation legally has to go out the window now because the sworn statement of someone who repeatedly lied on sworn statements before tends to impede credibility, but the alternative isn't pretty either.

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    1. Harran's lawyers didn't go out looking for this dirt, it was the DA who discovered it.

      Wrong. See page 13 and beyond: "Counsel for Professor Harran conducted a preliminary investigation into Investigator Baudendistel." from the defense motion linked below.

      http://cen.acs.org/content/dam/cen/static/pdfs/Article_Assets/90/Harran_Defense_Motion.pdf

      I agree that The Law and Legal Precedent needs to be followed, no matter the consequences, however disappointing or unfair.

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    2. UCLA bought its way out of this mess. I fail to see why Harran has to be left holding the bag.

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    3. (meant sincerely) Because he was her employer and supervisor, and held some level of responsibility for her safety?

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    4. I suppose it also depends on what is meant by "holding the bag."

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    5. Look, a person died, and someone has to pay. There are three responsible parties. First is the victim who (in large part through no fault of her own) had no idea what she was doing. Second is Harran, her supervisor, who for whatever reasons did not take sufficient steps to ensure her safety. Third is her employer, UCLA, which established and propagated an environment where safety was blatantly disregarded, and who probably should bear the lion's share of responsibility.
      Now, UCLA extricated itself from the criminal case, and let's be truthful, faceless institutions make lousy defendants. So Harran has to be convicted or the case will be seen as failure by DA's office. I'm not saying he is innocent, I am saying that all blame that's going to be dished out is now his, and where we could expect a hefty fine and a slap on a wrist we may now see some prison time.

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    6. "faceless institutions make lousy defendants."

      Very true.

      I think you're right, in that Harran is going to take the majority of the public blame, which is disproportionate to the amount of blame that he should be given (off by 10-30%, by my estimation.)

      I disagree that we're going to see a conviction or prison time. If the Baudendistel charges are accurate, we're probably going to see the dropping of the charges. (But I am not a lawyer, nor a legal analyst, so my prediction as to the outcome of the case is just as good as yours.)

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    7. Well, i think the essays that Chemjobber linked to cover the ideas pretty well, but i don't equate actions taken by a minor, with acceptance of responsibility and evidence of getting his life back on track, to actions (not) taken as an adult responsible for a laboratory. And to be fair if my record was legally expunged after i had done everything expected of me to start a new life, i am not sure i would include that in my background info either.

      I don't really have a strong feeling about serving time, and even CJ's idea of Harran doing a scared-straight talk at departments as community service would be a positive outcome. But eliding any responsibility on a technicality serves no one. And if you can call it justice when you have a young woman clinging to life for two weeks with her abdominal wall burned off, and the chemistry departments all shrug and go back to shorts-and-sandals for the students and Wall-Street-level lack of accountability for the faculty, you have a stronger stomach than me.

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  5. I could be wrong, but I believe that UCLA (and hence, the state of California) is paying for Harran's legal fees. I think there are better ways to spend my tax dollars than paying a team of lawyers to try every trick in the book to get Harran off the hook.

    I hope the DA---whom I also pay---sticks to his guns...but I won't hold my breath. Harran will join Dalibor Sames in what amounts to something on the order of "punishment by information". Google searches of their names will always prominently feature their sordid pasts, hopefully thwarting positive developments that might have otherwise come their way (e.g., awards, job offers). Should either even receive so much as an invitation to give a talk, the audience has every right to question them about these legal/ethical cases. I see no reason why such a line of questioning would be more irrelevant to a talk on organic synthesis than Mr. Baudendistel's actions as a 16-year-old are to the death of Sheri Sangji.

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    1. You know, I don't know if anyone has brought up that point, that Harran is being defended (and prosecuted!) by the taxpayer.

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    2. Paul I could rant on this for 10 pages. Since when was questioning your main accusers creditability regarded as 'every trick in the book.' This isn't an esoteric trick, it's pretty common in law proceedings. We, by law, have the right to face our accusers. It's a pretty important right.

      As a law student (and former chemist) I just can't understand the outrage at Harran because his attorneys investigated the OSHA guy. What did he think was going to happen? I don't think Harran is sitting in his ivory tower grasping at straws here. They did the standard investigative work that any good law office would do and caught the guy in a lie. Turns out you actually have to be a creditable witness to get someone thrown in jail.

      While this has no bearing on the moral issue at hand (e.g. who is responsible for this) it has considerable ramification under the law. These laws are here for a reason.

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    3. Wow, so much hate – delivered with such conviction. Of course, I assume you believe Mr. Baudendistel’s report is accurate; that his portrayal of Sangji and Harran’s actions are true. Why wouldn’t you believe this – virtually everything in print on this case is based on that report. And after all, Baudendistel’s conviction for 1st degree, pre-meditated murder was 25 years ago, and his lying about it to the DA and the LATimes last week; well, those things happen. He seems like a reliable, honest Joe to me. No reason for the defense to worry he omitted facts or key testimony. No, they’re just being ‘sordid’.

      I’m equally impressed by your conflation of scientific fraud with an inadvertent laboratory accident. Come to think of it, lets forget the ‘sordid’ legal process and all the nonsense with a trial. Lets hold a public square shaming right now, and then toss Harran in the clink. Mr. Baudendistel’s ‘facts’ are certainly good enough for that.

      Geez.

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    4. "Why wouldn’t you believe this – virtually everything in print on this case is based on that report."

      Wrong, wrong, wrong. The vast majority of the print media on this case was written long before the Baudendistel report was released to the media. What has been written has been mostly based on Kim Christensen's writing at the LA Times and Jyllian Kemsley's reports in C&EN. In addition, Kemsley has released all of her source documents online, where things can be corroborated.

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    5. interesting - archives suggest 7 articles on the subject published between Jan 2009 and Dec. 15, 2011.
      Between Dec. 15 2011 and this morning, there were 247.

      of course, this would not catch the trade publications you cite.

      anyway, its true for all of us, its hard to question what you so want to believe (i.e wrong, wrong wrong).
      personally, i'm a big fan of presumed innocent thing, so i'll wait for the trial results, assuming it gets that far.

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    6. Anon8:12:

      Link to the search that you used?

      The facts of the case are not in question; they have not changed between the time that the Times/C&EN articles were written and the Baudendistel report. The only difference now is that the interpretation of the facts have changed from neglect to "willfulness", whatever that means.

      This blog and the readers of this blog haven't really had their opinions changed much since Jyllian Kemsley wrote her long-form article in 2009. Those who think that Harran belongs in the clink haven't really had their opinions changed, those who think that he's being railroaded haven't really had their opinions changed either.

      As far as "presumed innocent", it's not like there's a question as to whether or not Harran is involved. That's naive and specious. The legal question at hand is much more technical -- is Patrick Harran guilty of "willfully violating health and safety standards"?

      I strongly encourage you to continue adding your opinions, but drop your sanctimoniousness at the door. Enjoy, Chemjobber

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    7. Actually, I changed my opinion, which originally was along the lines of "let him rot". I no longer think that he alone should pay for institutionalized disregard for safety.

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  6. btw, Harran is probably already making US $200-300K a year as a professor at UCLA, not including the free legal representation.

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    1. As of 2010, Harran made $273k.

      http://ucpay.globl.org/index.php?campus=&name=harran&title=&base=&overtime=&extra=&gross=&year=&s=gross

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  7. Hey CJ! I'm curious if you have recently aggregated what departments across the nation are doing to be more safe? or has Jillian? Or are departments waiting to see the results of Harren's arrangement before they make drastic changes?

    I am surprised by UCLA's establishment of a environmental law scholarship and the requirement of having everyone take osha training before 90 days. it just seems so minimal. no? why not set up standards and protocol so that lab spaces are set up in a timely fashion so that productive research can be done? (as Harren claims that he was in temp lab space which is why it was in disarray, although, I of course do not find that a reason for a lax safety environment) This is also not to say that I blame the construction folks. I owe a great deal to the plant operations folks to keep our building working, there are just not enough of them, and things can't get fixed fast enough, so they why not find a way so that they are?

    For example of a recent change in our department since the results of the investigation is that the department has purchase flame-resistant labcoats for every single person who works in a synthetic lab and we are required to wear it when we are working at our hoods.

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    1. Hey, stemwonk!

      No, I don't think anyone has investigated post-Harran/Sangji changes. Certainly there have been a lot of individual departments and/or professors who have decreed different things, but nothing too prominent or out-in-front.

      It does seem a little minimal, but it remains to be seen how much the LA district attorney will crank up the pressure on the UC system.

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    2. The litmus test will happen this fall, when the new students come. Will the department get more coats? Will it take care of washing dirty lab coats? The problem is, I've seen many academic safety campaigns, none of them rose to the level of sustained effort.

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