University researcher pleads guilty to developing scientific expertise for China

COLUMBUS, Ohio (KVOA) – On Thursday, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) announced a rheumatology professor and researcher with strong ties to China pleaded guilty to making false statements to federal authorities as part of an immunology research fraud scheme.

According to the DOJ, Song Guo Zheng, a 58-year old man admitted he lied on applications in order to use approximately $4.1 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop China’s expertise in the areas of rheumatology and immunology.

“Federal research funding is provided by the American tax payers for the benefit of American society—not as a subsidy for the Chinese Government,” John Demers, Assistant Attorney General for National Security said. “The American people deserve total transparency when federal dollars are being provided for research, and we will continue to hold accountable those who choose to lie about their foreign government affiliations in an attempt to fraudulently gain access to these funds.”

The DOJ said Zheng was a professor of internal medicine who led a team conducting autoimmune research at The Ohio State University and Pennsylvania State University. According to his plea, Zheng caused materially false and misleading statements on NIH grant applications, seeking to hide his participation in Chinese Talent Plans and his affiliation and collaboration with a Chinese university controlled by the Chinese government.

The DOJ said making false statements to the federal government is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.

“The FBI and our law enforcement partners continue to engage with universities to protect sensitive research from being illegally transferred to foreign governments,” Chris Hoffman, FBI Cincinnati Special Agent in Charge said. “Today’s plea represents an acknowledgment by Zheng not only of his violation of the trust given to him by the U.S. government in the form of federal grant funds, but also of norms for research integrity and an abuse of the openness and transparency in the U.S. academic system.”

Zheng was arrested Friday, May 22, 2020, after he arrived in Anchorage, Alaska, aboard a charter flight and as he prepared to board another charter flight to China.

“Whether it’s a midnight flight through Alaska or hiding in plain sight, we will find you and bring you to justice,” Alan E. Kohler, Jr., Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division said.

The DOJ said, when he was arrested, he was carrying three large bags, one small suitcase and a briefcase containing two laptops, three cell phones, several USB drives, several silver bars, expired Chinese passports for his family, deeds for property in China and other items. He was transported to the Southern District of Ohio and made his first federal court appearance in Columbus on July 7, 2020.

“Zheng promised China he would enhance the country’s biomedical research. He was preparing to flee the United States after he learned that his American employer had begun an administrative process into whether or not he was complying with American taxpayer-funded grant rules,” David M. DeVillers, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio said. 

The DOJ said according to court documents, since 2013, Zheng had been participating in a Chinese Talent Plan, a program established by the Chinese government to recruit individuals with knowledge or access to foreign technology intellectual property. Since that time, Zheng used research conducted in the United States to benefit the People’s Republic of China. Zheng failed to disclose conflicts of interest or his foreign commitments to his American employers or to the NIH.

“The purpose of reporting potential conflicts of interest is to protect the integrity of professional judgement and ensure the public’s trust in the research being conducted,” Lamont Pugh III, Special Agent in Charge, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Office of Inspector General – Chicago Region said. “This defendant violated that trust by failing to report his financial interests and affiliations with foreign parties in an effort to improperly obtain research grant funding through the National Institutes of Health. The OIG is committed to identifying and investigating instances where individuals intentionally fail to report or falsify information regarding their sources of research support in order to ensure the proper use of taxpayer dollars.”

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