KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — A Chinese scientist accused of taking agricultural seeds from a private research facility in Kansas and giving them to members of a visiting delegation from China has to remain in federal custody at least until his next court appearance, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
Weiqiang Zhang, an agricultural seed breeder at a biopharmaceutical company’s facility in Junction City, was charged last week with conspiracy to steal trade secrets. He’s accused of collecting the seeds from the company — which court documents identify only as “Company A” — for more than a year and storing them at his home in Manhattan, Kan., before handing at least some of them off this summer to a group of agriculture officials from China whose U.S. trip he helped arrange, according to the federal complaint.
The company told federal authorities it was the only producer of those particular seeds in the U.S. and that if those seeds were stolen and the technology compromised “its entire research and development investment would be compromised,” according to the complaint. The company said its research investment in developing the seeds ranged from $3 million to $18 million.
Zhang, who attended the hearing in an orange prison jumpsuit, listened as an interpreter relayed the court’s hour-and-a-half long proceedings during which prosecutors tried to show Zhang should be detained because he would likely flee the country to avoid prosecution.
Thomas Bartee, Zhang’s federal public defender, said Zhang would not leave the area because he has a wife, two children, ages 8 and 11, and deep ties to the Manhattan community, where he’s lived for several years.
U.S. District Magistrate Judge James P. O’Hara, however, sided with prosecutors and ordered Zhang detained in part because testimony from the FBI agent who investigated the case showed Zhang “was at best evasive, if not intentionally untruthful,” O’Hara said.
“I do believe based on what’s been proffered here ... you would cross a border and leave the country,” the judge said. O’Hara said he would consider a request for “substantial” bail at Zhang’s next hearing, which he set for Dec. 30.
Zhang, a citizen of China, is a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. His co-defendant, Wengui Yan, a naturalized U.S. citizen, worked for the Department of Agriculture as a research geneticist at the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center in Arkansas. Yan has also been detained in Arkansas.
Zhang and Yan are accused of arranging the trip for the officials from China and then giving them seeds, which were confiscated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection before the group flew home to China. Zhang and Yan face up to 10 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000.
Their case coincided last week with charges in Iowa against six men from China, including the CEO of a seed corn subsidiary of a Chinese conglomerate. They are charged with conspiring to steal patented seed corn from two of America’s leading seed developers.
Jim Cross, spokesman for the U.S. Attorneys in Kansas, said Tuesday as far as he knows the two cases are not related.
The number of cases of economic espionage that the government has brought since 1996 has largely remained constant at between 10 and 15 prosecutions a year, said Peter Toren, a Washington lawyer and former federal prosecutor who handled cases involving theft of trade secrets. But he said the number of prosecutions involving China in the last few years has accounted for at least half of those indictments.
“China is looking for a way to compete on the world market now as cheaply as possible, and it’s much cheaper to steal information from American companies ... than develop it on their own,” Toren said.