TAMPA, Fla. — Petr Taborsky was a brilliant young chemistry student earning $8.50 an hour as a lab assistant when he made the discovery that won him U.S. Patent No. 5,082,813--a process that turns Kitty Litter-like clay into a cheap way to treat sewage.
Seven years later, Taborsky was in maximum-security state prison, working on a chain gang, because of a dispute over whether he or the University of South Florida owns his invention.
"I decided I wasn't going to let them intimidate me," Taborsky, now 34, said recently at a work-release center where he was transferred after Gov. Lawton Chiles learned about his case.
To the university, Taborsky's case is about preserving the integrity of sponsored research programs.
"We want our property back," said Kevin Carey, a lawyer representing the university. "Just like if somebody steals your car, you want your car back."
But others, including Dexter Douglass, the governor's legal counsel, say it might be a case of legal overkill. He said Taborsky could be granted clemency.
"There are a lot of things in this that raise your eyebrows," Douglass said. "We are concerned that it has overtones that the government overreached in this young man's case."
The case began in 1987, when Taborsky started working on a research project in the USF engineering lab involving Clinoptilolite, a clay the lab was testing for a subsidiary of Florida Progress Corp.
According to Taborsky, he had his professor's permission to experiment with leftovers after the three-month project ended. He wanted to understand its chemical properties.
Taborsky spent nights in the lab, napping on packing foam on the floor with an alarm waking him every 20 minutes to collect more data. In July 1988, he found a way to heat the substance past 850 degrees without destroying it.
The process made it more efficient at absorbing ammonium. Taborsky said he was told the results had to be wrong because the clay normally breaks down completely at about 600 degrees. He conducted more experiments with the same results.
Suddenly, Taborsky said, everyone was making claims on the invention, which could be valuable to several sewage treatment plants that use the clay. No one will say exactly how valuable.
Taborsky's professor told him the invention belonged to USF and Florida Progress, a utility conglomerate, because it grew out of their original project.
Taborsky said he was offered a job with a subsidiary of the company and told he would be the primary author for their patent application. He turned down the job, however, when presented with a contract saying he could be fired at the firm's convenience.
But, as part of his job application, Taborsky signed what he said was a routine confidentiality agreement.
Weeks later, he was arrested and charged with theft. A police report shows engineering professor Robert Carnahan told police Taborsky had taken two research notebooks from a locked laboratory, in violation of a confidentiality agreement with the university.
Taborsky said there actually were four notebooks, which he bought at a campus bookstore and took home almost every night. And he said he never signed any agreement with the school, just with the company.
At his criminal trial, a prosecutor told jurors: "The only thing Petr Taborsky invented is the story he told you."
Taborsky was convicted in 1990 of grand theft and theft of trade secrets and sentenced to a year's house arrest and 15 years' probation.
But the federal patent office later decided Taborsky did invent something. He and Carnahan each had submitted patent applications on the procedure. Because of the dispute, the same examiner studied both applications side by side.
Ultimately, Taborsky was granted three U.S. patents. Carnahan's application was rejected.
Because Taborsky continued to pursue the application, first filed before he was arrested, a judge found him guilty in 1992 of violating probation for using the disputed notebooks.
He was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in state prison when he refused to sign over his first patent to the school. The university also is pursuing the other two patents. Civil lawsuits are pending.
Taborsky, a Czech citizen whose family fled to the United States in 1968, saw his citizenship application put on hold because of the case. His marriage crumbled. The university withheld his chemistry degree.
But he says he won't give up until his conviction is overturned. Taborsky, who applied for his first patent when he was 16 and found a new way to control aquatic weeds, says it's a question of scientific integrity.
He spent a total of 10 months behind bars, including four months in maximum-security state prison as part of a processing program that all Florida felons must go through.
In maximum-security, he worked on a chain gang for eight weeks before becoming a prison gardener. He later worked at the prison's waste-water treatment plant, where he developed new programs to make the operation more efficient.
Without further action from the state, his tentative release date from the work-release center is September 1997.