US Professor Pleads Guilty to Charges Related to Secretly Working for Chinese Research Institute

March 11, 2020 Updated: March 11, 2020
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A U.S. professor has pleaded guilty to fraud after concealing his participation in a Chinese state-run job recruitment program.

Dr. James Patrick Lewis, 54, was a tenured physics professor at West Virginia University (WVU) from 2006 to August 2019. He specialized in studying molecular reactions used in coal conversion technologies.

He was charged with federal program fraud and pleaded guilty to the one-count charge, according to a March 10 press release by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

He agreed to be employed as a professor by China’s state-run research institute, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), under a program called “Thousand Talents Plan,” while he was still a professor at West Virginia University, according to prosecutors.

“This case represents an attempt to serve China to the detriment of West Virginia University and the United States,” said U.S Attorney Bill Powell in the press release.

The DOJ pointed out that the Thousand Talents Plan is one of the most prominent Chinese recruitment programs, which “seek to lure overseas talent and foreign experts to bring their knowledge and experience to China and reward individuals for stealing proprietary information.”

Beijing rolled out the Thousand Talents Plan in 2008 to aggressively recruit promising science and tech researchers from foreign countries to work in China.

Fraud

In the contract with CAS, “Lewis agreed to maintain an active research program that yielded publications in high quality, peer-reviewed journals, and to provide research training and experience for Chinese Academy of Sciences students,” according to the DOJ. The contract stipulated that Lewis was to be a CAS professor for at least three years.

Under the Thousand Talents Plan, he was promised benefits, including a living subsidy of one million yuan (about $143,000), a research subsidy of 4 million yuan (about $573,000), and a salary of 600,000 yuan (about $86,000), according to the press release.

He would have to work full time in China for three consecutive years, starting at the latest Aug. 8, 2018, for no less than nine months per year, in order to enjoy those benefits.

With the intention of going to China, Lewis made a fraudulent request to WVU in March 2018, asking to be released from his teaching duties for the 2018 fall semester so he could become a primary caregiver for a child he and his wife were expecting three months later. WVU granted his request for the parental work assignment.

“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 Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers, in the press release.

Lewis spent all but three weeks in China during the 2018 fall semester, while his newborn child was still in the United States.

During the same period, he continued to receive his full salary from WVU based on the parent work assignment, obtaining fraudulently $20,189 from the university, according to the DOJ.

FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigations) agent Robert Jones noted that while participation in a talent plan such as Lewis’s is not illegal, “investigations have revealed participants are often incentivized to transfer proprietary information or research conducted in the U.S. to China,” he said in the press release.

Lewis has agreed to pay $20,189 in restitution to WVU as a part of his plea agreement. He could face up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, according to the DOJ.

The Research

On March 29, 2018, CAS’s Beijing branch announced on its website that one of its affiliated institutes, the Institute of Coal Chemistry, had successfully recruited Lewis under the Thousand Talents Plan’s program to recruit foreign experts.

The announcement also stated that the foreign expert program, which was rolled out in 2011 with the goal of recruiting non-Chinese experts, had successfully recruited 381 foreigners.

Lewis was also a co-author of a 2019 paper published in the scientific publication The Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters. In the paper, Lewis is listed as being affiliated with three institutes: WVU; the State Key Laboratory of Coal Conversion at CAS’s Institute of Coal Chemistry; and Beijing Advanced Innovation Center for Materials Genome Engineering at Beijing Information Science and Technology University.

Chinese state-run media Global Times, in a 2017 article published on its WeChat account, pointed out that the foreign expert program offers a research subsidy between 3 and 5 million yuan (about $28,570 to $47,600), and a one-time subsidy of 1 million yuan.

The article cited a comment by Jin Jianmin, director in charge of the foreign expert program at the State Administration of Foreign Expert Affairs, which is a department under China’s Ministry of Science and Technology.

Jin said that as more foreign experts are being recruited to China year after year, there has been a trend of “foreigners recruiting other foreigners.”

Follow Frank on Twitter: @HwaiDer