Robotic FX Founder Admits Destroying Data But Says Some Evidence Might Have Been Planted; Hearing Will Resume Monday
Citing fear and panic, Robotic FX founder Jameel Ahed yesterday acknowledged destroying CD-ROM disks and erasing the data from a laptop computer after iRobot filed lawsuits against him and his firm alleging theft of trade secrets. At the same time, he speculated that one item found by private detectives who were observing him “was possibly planted.”
All this comes in a nice piece in today’s Boston Globe by Hiawatha Bray, who recounted the proceedings from yesterday’s hearing in U.S. District Court in Boston, where Burlington, MA-based iRobot (NASDAQ: IRBT) is seeking a preliminary injunction against Robotic FX of Alsip, IL. On September 14, Robotic FX won a $279.9 million military contract to deliver bomb-detection robots for use in Iraq and Afghanistan. The hearing did not wrap up as planned yesterday, and a court clerk this morning said she had to rejigger Judge Nancy Gertner’s schedule to find time to resume next Monday.
As these events were unfolding, Robotic FX was rushing to deliver its first two “Negotiator” robots, which under the terms of the September 14 contract must be delivered this week. “The first 2 units are actually due 10 business days from contract date which is this Friday and they will be on time!!” wrote Robotic FX chief operations officer Kim Hill in an e-mailed statement.
Last month, as the two firms vied for the military contract, iRobot filed suit against its rival. In the Massachusetts case, iRobot is accusing Robotic FX and Ahed, a former iRobot employee, of infringing on patents for iRobot’s “Packbot” military robot and misappropriation and misuse of confidential information related to the device. IRobot also filed a separate patent-infringement case against Robotic FX in Alabama.
IRobot also hired private detectives to follow Ahed and his colleagues. According to court documents, the detectives observed Ahed loading objects into a car owned by Hill’s parents. The next day, a detective observed a man fitting Ahed’s description throwing items from the car into a dumpster near Hill’s Chicago condominium unit. A few days after that, U.S. marshals searched Hill’s condo and reportedly found a laptop that was in the process of having its hard drive erased.
In its account today, the Globe reports that Ahed yesterday admitted running software to erase the data on the laptop—and to hiding the computer under the Hill’s bed when the marshals arrived. “I was afraid and a little panicked that this thing was still running,” Ahed is quoted as saying. “I had a frightening day. I don’t know why I did it.”
Ahed, according to the Globe, also admitted shredding about 100 CD-ROM disks after iRobot filed suit. He said they contained Robotic FX data.
Perhaps the most stunning testimony centered on a special tool, identified as a “hot plate,” that iRobot uses to weld the treads on its PackBots. One of these tools was reportedly among the items found by detectives in the dumpster near Hill’s condo. According to the Globe, while Ahed admitted throwing away many of the items retrieved by the detectives, he denied having had possession of the hot plate. “I can only imagine that this was possibly planted,” the Globe quotes him as saying.
IRobot attorney Ruffin Cordell called this suggestion “preposterous” in a statement quoted by the Globe. “It is pure fantasy,” he said.
UPDATE, Sept. 25: Electronic notes filed by Judge Gertner’s clerk this morning provide a brief chronology of yesterday’s hearing. They show that testimony by a Mr. Ohm was suspended. (I’m guessing this is Timothy R. Ohm, whose name appears on at least one patent assigned to iRobot covering a “resilient wheel structure.”) Ahed was then called to testify by iRobot attorneys, and the courtroom was sealed for 20 minutes during his testimony. After lunch a third witness, Tom Frost, was sworn in. According to his LinkedIn profile, Frost is PackBot program manager at iRobot. It is not clear how long Frost testified (or whether he testified) before court was adjourned until Oct. 1.
SECOND UPDATE, Sept. 25: We just received an e-mailed statement from iRobot attorney Ruffin Cordell, who works in the Washington, D.C., office of Fish & Richardson:
“Ahed’s claim that the device was planted is preposterous. He admitted that he methodically collected up some thirty iRobot items, and over one hundred data CD’s when he learned about the lawsuit. He admitted that he threw the iRobot items into a dumpster, and proceeded to shred the data CD’s. Out of all of this, he picks out one item and conjures up this story about planting evidence. It is pure fantasy.”