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University researcher pleads guilty in research fraud case after hiding China ties

By David Schwartz
Published: November 17th, 2020

Last week the U.S. Department of Justice announced a rheumatology 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, 58-year-old Song Guo Zheng admitted falsifying grant applications in a scheme to use more than $4 million in NIH funds to boost China’s expertise in rheumatology and immunology.

“Federal research funding is provided by the American taxpayers for the benefit of American society — not as a subsidy for the Chinese government,” said John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security. “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.”

Zheng was an internal medicine professor who led a team conducting autoimmune research at Ohio State and Penn State universities. According to his plea, Zheng made false and misleading statements on NIH grant applications, seeking to hide his participation in China’s Thousand Talents Plan and his affiliation and collaboration with a government-controlled Chinese university.

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,” said Chris Hoffman, FBI Cincinnati special agent in charge. “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 in May in Alaska as prepared to board a 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,” warned Alan E. Kohler, Jr., assistant director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division.

When Zheng was arrested, he was carrying 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 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,” noted David M. DeVillers, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio. 

Source: News 4 Tucson

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