COLUMBUS, Ohio — A medical researcher and professor who had been working most recently at Ohio State University is facing federal charges in what prosecutors say was a sophisticated scheme to transfer U.S.-backed research to China.
Song Guo Zheng, 57, of suburban Hilliard, and his research groups secured more than $4.3 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health for projects while receiving overlapping funding from the National Natural Science Foundation of China, according to a criminal complaint unsealed Thursday in Columbus.
Zheng worked in the division of rheumatology and immunology at OSU's Wexner Medical Center. When he was hired last year, the university described him as "a nationally and internally renowned researcher" known as an enthusiastic pioneer in his field.
Prosecutors now say Zheng was involved in a "sophisticated medical grant fraud scheme" involving the transfer of research paid for with U.S. grant funds to China. He faces one felony count of fraud or bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds, which carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison, and one count of making false statements when not disclosing his foreign affiliations to authorities, which carries up to five years.
Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Preston Deavers ordered Zheng held without bond because he is a flight risk. The case will be presented to a federal grand jury for possible indictment. The investigation is continuing.
Federal agents arrested Zheng in Alaska in May, as they say he was attempting to board a private flight headed to China. He initially told investigators he was "going home," later changing his story to say he only was planning a visit to see his sick father. Documents say he had "three large bags packed for a long, if not permanent, journey," including one stuffed with two laptop computers, several USB drives and silver bars.
"We allege that Zheng was preparing to flee the country after he learned that his employer had begun an administrative process into whether or not he was complying with rules governing taxpayer-funded grants," U.S. Attorney David M. DeVillers said in a statement.
An affidavit filed with the complaint alleges that Zheng has been participating since 2013 in a Chinese Talent Plan, a program established by the Chinese government to recruit those with knowledge or access to foreign technology intellectual property.
FBI Cincinnati Special Agent in Charge Chris Hoffman said U.S. taxpayers "are the real victims" when researchers defraud the government on behalf of a rival country.
"The cutting-edge technologies that are being developed in our country must be carefully protected from our foreign adversaries and the FBI will continue to work with our partners to safeguard these important innovations," Hoffman said in a statement.
Before moving to Ohio, Zheng worked at the University of Southern California and Pennsylvania State University, the complaint said.
Ohio State spokesman Ben Johnson said Zheng is currently on unpaid leave and the university has begun the process of terminating him.