In what federal prosecutors said was the stiffest punishment ever for research grant fraud nationwide, UCLA electrical engineering professor Cavour W. Yeh was sentenced Tuesday to two years in prison and ordered to pay $1.75 million in fines and restitution. Yeh, a UCLA professor since 1967, also resigned his tenured post.
Two of Yeh's sisters and a brother, all of whom were secretly put on the UCLA payroll by the professor, were each sentenced to three years' probation. They had pleaded guilty to covering up the professor's misconduct.
Prosecutors contended that Yeh paid $450,000 in grant money to his siblings and tried to hide his relationship to them. He also was accused of using federal grants to purchase electronic equipment at inflated prices from a company he covertly owned.
In February, the professor pleaded guilty in federal court to six counts of mail fraud and making false statements. He must pay the federal government $1.6 million in quarterly payments over the next two years. Yeh also must pay UCLA $150,000 immediately and, in exchange, UCLA will drop its pending civil suit against him.
Before sentencing Yeh, U.S. District Judge Harry L. Hupp repeatedly referred to the expert in fiber optics communications as a genius who produced good scientific results on the grants in question. "Obviously, it takes genius and expertise for Dr. Yeh to accomplish what he accomplished. But why all these lies?" Hupp asked.
At the hearing, defense lawyers said the professor was guilty only of sloppy paperwork and said he hired family members because he felt no one else could do the research properly.
"I am very, very, very sorry for what I have done. I feel exceedingly regretful for what I have done," Yeh, 55, told the judge.
However, outside the courtroom, defense attorneys portrayed Yeh as a scapegoat in what they claimed was UCLA's attempt to deflect investigations into other research violations. Yeh gave prosecutors information on other alleged frauds, according to his attorney, Brian O'Neill. The attorney added that Yeh decided to plead guilty to the fraud because he feared that as a Chinese-American he could not receive a fair trial.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Nathan J. Hochman, who handled the case, said "the only reason Cavour Yeh was prosecuted was for the egregious fraud." UC managing counsel Christine Helwick said Yeh's tips on other alleged frauds proved groundless and dismissed charges of racism as "nonsense."
His brother, Richard Yeh, 54, and sisters, Victoria Hsia, 59, and Wei Li, 56, all of Los Angeles, received about $450,000 from the grants and kicked back a portion to the professor, the government alleged. On Tuesday, the three insisted that they earned their UCLA money and gave some to their brother for a family investment, not as a kickback. In addition to probation, Richard Yeh was sentenced to 300 hours of community service.
Cavour Yeh has been suspended from his UCLA job since May, 1990. Prosecutors said the family's considerable assets will cover the fines and restitution.