Indicted coastal researcher fires back at feds, sues TWIG over records request

    The legal battle is intensifying in the case of coastal scientist Ehab Meselhe, who was indicted, along with a coworker, in early June for allegedly stealing trade secrets from the researchers’ former employer, The Water Institute of the Gulf.

    In documents filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana, Meselhe’s attorneys ask the court to dismiss the four-count indictment against Meselhe and fellow researcher Kelin Hu, who are charged with conspiracy to steal trade secrets, attempting to steal trade secrets, and conspiracy to commit computer fraud and abuse.

    Separately, an attorney for Meselhe is suing TWIG in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge for refusing to turn over public records detailing the terms of its contract with the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority, which funds TWIG and paid for the modeling tool the scientists are accused of stealing.

    The court filings are the first major developments since the researchers’ arrest last month, which sent shock waves through the close-knit community of coastal scientists in Baton Rouge, where TWIG and the CPRA are based, as well as in New Orleans, home to Tulane University’s River and Coastal Center in New Orleans, where Meselhe and Hu are currently employed.

    The alleged theft of trade secrets used by competing research institutions—that, until recently, professed to be collaborators—is typically the stuff of fiction. But this is real—and puzzling to many. Meselhe is known as a rock-star researcher and is highly regarded in his field. He also helped develop, on a shared platform, the modeling tool he is now accused of stealing.

    In the motion to dismiss the indictment, Meselhe’s attorneys argue that the modeling tool—the Basin Wide Model—is not a trade secret owned by TWIG, but rather, a tool owned by the state of Louisiana, since its development was funded by the CRPA. They also argue, among other things, that copying public property that belongs to the state is not a federal crime.

    In the state court matter, Meselhe attorney P.J. Kee is suing TWIG for refusing to turn over more than a dozen documents detailing the terms of the 2012 Cooperative Endeavor Agreement between TWIG and the CPRA, as well as several task orders CPRA signed, giving TWIG the go-ahead to develop and do coastal modeling work for the state agency.

    Court documents show Kee sent TWIG a letter requesting the documents on June 14. Four days later, TWIG attorney Sheldon Blount replied that TWIG did not have to comply with the request because TWIG “is not a public body” subject to the Public Record’s Act.

    “Petitioner has a fundamental right to know how public money is being spent and what is being created by TWIG through the services outlined in the Cooperative Endeavor Agreement,” the suit says.

    TWIG officials did not respond to requests for comment prior to this morning’s deadline.

    A trial date for Meselhe and Hu has been set for Aug. 5. 

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