COLLATERAL

by Devi S. Laskar 

(Published on Medium

On Sunday, November 17, 2013, The New York Times published an articleabout my husband Dr. Joy Laskar, a former professor of electrical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the way in which our lives were upended three and a half years ago when a perfect storm of office politics and money and a dispute over his invention, first erupted. A follow up NYT article was published in January 2015. Below is my essay of the day it all began 62 months ago.

Not quite nine o’clock in the morning: the special agent from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation with blue eyes and a wisp of a mustache is pointing his rifle at me, the sidewalk already sizzling from the sun, the smell of green grass poaching in the air, men with blue uniforms, guns and bullet­proof vests in the front yard and milling about the open front‐door, some women in the neighborhood standing at the tops of their driveways, glistening in tennis whites, and laughing as if they were watching a reality show; one agent’s cell phone ringing unanswered, and another agent with big hands searching my body and my car, ostensibly for weapons, while others readied themselves to finish raiding my house; the female agent in charge offering to let me stay and watch as they searched and then seized our belongings, but only if I agreed to be placed in handcuffs; a television news crew armed with cameras and a satellite dish squatting on the sidewalk.

Thinking first that my husband had died.

Thinking second that my old life, everything up to that very minute, was gone forever, and that whatever happened from that moment forward was part of a new life that bore no resemblance to my former life in any way except that I was still in it.

For several months prior, the climate at the Georgia Institute of Technology had been darkening as colleagues had been treating him with a sort of rudeness and callousness that surprised us both; and I had been encouraging him to leave for another institution. He had a few offers, in the Midwest. But in the end he didn’t want to go. He liked the university that he’d been a part of since 1995, although inexperienced men replaced the seasoned management who had originally hired him. Men who we’d known for years and who did nothing to hide their envy of my husband’s successes that included graduating 41 PhDs, teaching full time, founding four start­up companies, and bringing in more than $70 million in research funding. Men whose behavior ranged from disrespectful to bizarre — my husband I were academic brats, our whole lives had been steeped in our parents’ academia — and we were increasingly alarmed. But still he wanted to ride it out.

That Monday morning, my husband is called into a meeting, supposedly, to get the results of an internal audit to explain some cost overruns and accounting changes. It’s the same Monday investment bankers on the West Coast are to auction Sayana Wireless, my husband’s university incubated start‐up, to a Fortune 500 company. All the hard work and long hours and time spent on the road were about to pay off, and the university, a minority owner, would benefit financially as well. Monday morning and my husband goes to work, and I drop off our children at school, and stop at the store for groceries. As I chat with the cashier in the checkout lane, our houseguest, a medical student who is living in our basement, calls to say something is wrong, and that I need to come home.

I had been a reporter many years before, and had covered some crime stories, especially when I lived and worked in South Florida, Hawaii and Illinois. I had witnessed raids like this before. Usually these events were precipitated by at least one of the following conditions: money, drugs, guns, and women. I knew I didn’t have any money in the house more than what was in the kids’ piggy banks, and nothing stronger than Albuterol for my daughter’s asthma. No firearms. There were young women in the house, our daughters; one in middle school, and two in elementary school — but no circumstances nor set of conditions that would warrant the state police showing up. The deadliest object in the house was the fire extinguisher we kept in the garage, to be used in case of an emergency.

I had been out of the newsroom for more than a decade when the Kevlar clad police appeared in my driveway. I wasn’t sure how I was going to react, but I was grateful that our children weren’t at home. I wasn’t sure until the agent points his gun at me. Something inside me clicks, and I realize that my reporter skills are all I have to get an answer to why this raid is taking place. I neither cry nor scream nor demand an explanation because that’s what the appearance of a large group of agents and their big trucks usually elicits, tears and a declaration. I remember what my editor said to me once: “If you ever want an answer, you have to be willing to out-wait the other person.” So, I simply remain silent, and watch everything these agents do.

Some of them readjust their vests, and some of them walk the perimeter of my front lawn. Some of them speak loudly to one another because I had opened the garage door remotely when I pulled into the driveway, out of habit. I simply pressed the button and the garage door opened and an agent standing on the sidewalk raises his weapon and points it at me. Another agent comes towards my car and tells his colleague to lower his weapon and orders me to exit the car.

Their searches of my body and the car are not gentle, and their tone is impolite. The female agent in charge presents me with the search and seizure warrants, and asks me time and again where my husband is. I don’t answer her the first few times, and finally say, “He’s at work. But you know that.” She then makes a big show of saying she is looking for anything related to Sayana and CMP. CMP is an acronym that refers to a French company that the start­up worked with, but it wasn’t my job to educate her, so I remain silent. I listen to her repeatedly ask me, “What do you know about CMP?” There are groceries in the trunk of my car, but the agent won’t let me enter my kitchen to put the frozen toaster strudel in the fridge.

Rather than remain at the house in handcuffs, I opt to leave the female agent my telephone number so she can call me when she’s done, and then I drive away. I remember that it’s the Monday my occasional housekeeper is supposed to come over, and I call her to tell her my house is under siege. The medical student calls to tell me that she is on her way to class, that she was offered the “handcuffs” option and she too opted out. I go to a coffee shop nearby and call my family friend who is an attorney and wait for him to drive down from South Carolina. I try to call my husband but his cell goes to voicemail.

I am summoned. Just before lunchtime. My husband not dead but being detained by GBI agents, the news of purported crimes crashing the airwaves on television and the radio; an agent whose face I can no longer recall opening my front door for me. Like a waiter ushering in a patron at a restaurant, he motions for me to come in to my own house; after I enter I see a couple of uniformed police boxing up some papers, and another agent photographing the living room as if it were going to be showcased for a magazine; I hear agents upstairs talking and chuckling and one of them say, “uh­‐oh,” after something crashes from the direction of our youngest daughter’s room. The woman boxing the papers in this couple stops and laughs nervously, picks up a stack of papers and hands me the illegible pink copies of search and seizure inventory. She asks me to sign them, defending herself with an impassive “I’m sorry” when I began questioning her about opening my mail, and taking my things.

Later, my husband comes home and we learn that among the many things they took our passports and computers have been seized. I remember not answering the door and pushing my husband away from the windows when another news crew rings the bell and takes moving pictures of the reporter standing in front of the girls’ patriotic art taped on the front glass. I remember measuring my words like cloth before the girls enter the house after school to see the debris that was once our family life after the agents’ tornado‐like search.

Just before falling into a brief ugly sleep, I watch him and three of his staff from the university being accused of “malfeasance” and “misappropriating funds” on the late evening news, their smiling faces frozen on our television screen.

The people inside the university who instigated the raid, the subsequent and ongoing “dog and pony” show with the media, his arrest (without indictment) on state racketeering charges, the quasi legal hearing inside the university and his eventual dismissal in 2011, knew all about Sayana Wireless and my husband’s work. They’d hailed him as a hero, until making him an enemy to hide their own malfeasance.

The first year or so after the police showed up on my doorstep was a whirlwind of reaction, meetings with lawyers, and days spent in civil court as his side fought the university over the suspension without pay (which is illegal), the way he was being railroaded out of the university (also illegal), the circus that was his university tenure hearing, and the revocation of his tenure. He won his back‐pay and attorney fees, he won the lawsuit about the university concealing its records and the university has since released 515,000 emails.

But even there, there are problems. They have repeatedly and to this date ignored the judge’s order and failed to release the specific records we have asked for. It is not following the spirit of the law to photocopy one email six to 10 times or even 25 times rather than release an email communication that was specifically asked for. It follows the university’s same pattern of arrogance that has been documented for the past three and a half years. The way he was terminated didn’t follow the law, and, once again, we are seeking remedy in federal court.

The local media has played its part, too. I have been largely disappointed and dismayed by the local press, especially the television news stations — of the coverage we received and then the silence that has followed. No one in the daily news business did any real reporting, or fact checking. No one bothered until The New York Times came along. One Atlanta TV reporter’s coverage was so biased that when my husband’s attorney called to correct him on some misinformation that he’d aired repeatedly one weekend, his supervisors yanked the piece from the website and it hasn’t been seen since.

The local media has moved on, to immigration issues, to a public school cheating scandal. So no one has bothered to do the math: the state of Georgia has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars already with their attacks upon my husband and yet nothing has really changed. There is no indictment to date, and instead, they have had to pay his salary and some attorney fees, and they have to answer our lawsuits in court.

We were silent before but no longer. (See The New York Times article about my husband.) The initial shock has worn off and we have realized we are in this for a long fight. This is my husband’s fight but it has become our fight, our families’ fight, too. We endured the offhand comments, the “shunning” as many people we’d known for years in the Georgia Tech community and in our circle of acquaintances stopped speaking to us and wouldn’t return our telephone calls; more strange behavior as others assumed something about the news reports had to be true and therefore we were no longer welcome. We had to sell our home and move, and leave the friends and family who had stood by us. We had to start over.

One of the lawyers recently asked my husband how I was, and made the comment that I was “collateral damage” in this prolonged fight. Not directly targeted but directly impacted just the same.

This is my new life.