A former physics professor at West Virginia University has been charged with secretly working for China’s government as part of a covert plan to acquire sensitive technology from the United States.
James Patrick Lewis, of Fairview, West Virginia, admitted to a single fraud charge, the Justice Department announced Tuesday.
The case is the latest in a string of criminal cases involving U.S. university professors and China along with a major government-wide crackdown on Chinese technology theft.
In January, the FBI arrested Charles Lieber, chairman of Harvard’s chemistry department, on charges of lying about receiving tens of thousands of dollars from the Wuhan University of Technology and lying to the Pentagon about receiving the foreign money.
Also in January, University of Kansas professor Tao Feng, was indicted on charges of secretly working for a Chinese university while working on projects funded by the Energy Department and National Science Foundation.
Last September, a Chinese official in New Jersey, Liu Zhongsan, was arrested on visa fraud charges as part of one of China’s covert programs to recruit American experts in high-technology research fields.
From 2006 to August 2019, Mr. Lewis, 54, was part of a Chinese technology acquisition program called the thousand talents program while a tenured professor at the university where he specialized in molecular reactions used in coal conversion technology.
The professor signed a contract with China in July 2017 as part of what the Justice Department said in a statement was a “Global Experts 1000 Talents Plan.”
“China’s Thousand Talents Plan is one of the most prominent Chinese Talent recruit plans that are designed to attract, recruit, and cultivate high-level scientific talent in furtherance of China’s scientific development, economic prosperity and national security,” the statement said.
The programs are designed to lure foreign experts into providing know-how and information to China and “reward individuals for stealing proprietary information.”
The contract with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Communist Party of China’s main scientific research organization, signed up Mr. Lewis for three years as a professor for the academy.
In exchange, Mr. Lewis agreed to set up a research program to produce publications for journals and to provide research training to Chinese Academy of Sciences students.
Among the benefits prosecutors say Mr. Lewis received was an expensive account of $143,000, research budget of $573,000 and salary of $86,000.
Prosecutors said that to receive the funds, Mr. Lewis had to work in China for three years and instead he made a fraudulent request of an alternate/parental work assignment as a caregiver that would release him from university teaching duties for the fall of 2018.
“Rather than caring for his newborn child, Lewis planned to work in China during the fall 2018 semester as a part of his agreement with the ‘1000 Talents Plan,’” the statement said, adding that the university granted his request based on the false statement.
Mr. Lewis spent most of the semester in China, receiving $20,000 of his salary from West Virginia University. He resigned in August 2019 and as part of a plea agreement agreed to pay back the $20,000.
He could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
“Lewis defrauded a public university into giving him leave, so that he could satisfy his competing obligations to a Chinese institution, which he hid from the school,” said John C. Demers, assistant attorney general for national security.
“I applaud the increased focus of the academic community to detect conflicts of interest and conflicts of commitment. Only with more transparency will we stem the tide of covert ties to Chinese institutions and programs, ties meant by the Chinese government to result in the transfer of intellectual property from the United States.”
Said FBI Pittsburgh Special Agent in Charge Robert Jones: “The FBI knows the Chinese government intentionally targets the advanced technologies and technical expertise developed in the U.S. to give itself a competitive advantage in the world marketplace. Participation in a talent plan like the one Dr. Lewis was part of is not illegal. But FBI investigations have revealed participants are often incentivized to transfer proprietary information or research conducted in the U.S. to China. This remains a significant threat and a high priority threat for the FBI. We are dedicated to making sure foreign governments know U.S. trade secrets cannot and will not be bought.”