University researcher sentenced to prison for lying on grant applications to develop scientific expertise for China
COLUMBUS, Ohio – A rheumatology professor and researcher with strong ties to China was sentenced to 37 months in prison for making false statements to federal authorities as part of an immunology research fraud scheme.
As part of his sentence, Song Guo Zheng, 58, of Hilliard, was also ordered to pay more than $3.4 million in restitution to the National Institute of Health (NIH) and approximately $413,000 to The Ohio State University.
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.
When he was arrested, Zheng 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 pleaded guilty in November 2020 and admitted he lied on applications in order to use approximately $4.1 million in grants from NIH to develop China’s expertise in the areas of rheumatology and immunology.
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.
“In yet another case involving the Chinese Government’s Thousand Talents program, Song Guo Zheng will spend the next 37 months in a federal prison because he chose to lie and hide his involvement in this program from U.S. research funding agencies,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers. “American research funding is provided by the American taxpayer for the benefit of American society—not as an illicit gift to the Chinese Government. 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.”
“For years the defendant concealed his participation in Chinese government talent recruitment programs, hiding his affiliations with at least five research institutions in China," said Alan E. Kohler, Jr., Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division. "Zheng greedily took federal research dollars and prevented others from receiving funding for critical research in support of medical advances. The FBI will continue to pursue people wherever they may be, even on a plane, in Alaska, in the middle of the night.”
“We hope Zheng’s prison sentence deters others from having anything to do with China’s so-called ‘1000 Talents Plan’ or any of its variations, said Acting U.S. Attorney Vipal J. Patel. “Stealing is stealing, but stealing at the behest of a foreign government’s concerted effort to pilfer our nation’s innovations and technology takes things to a new and significantly worse level.”
“Zheng’s sentencing today is a recognition of the constant threat posed by the Chinese government to steal research funded by American taxpayers,” stated FBI Cincinnati Special Agent in Charge Chris Hoffman. “Zheng’s failure to disclose his foreign funding and support damages the trust and undermines the credibility the American people place in U.S. research, while abusing the openness and transparency that is a core value of U.S. academia. This sentence should serve as a deterrent and underscores the FBI’s commitment to work with our partners to investigate individual’s whose actions throw a cloud over the cutting-edge work being done at U.S. universities.”
“Reporting potential conflicts of interest when seeking grant funding from the National Institutes of Health is imperative in ensuring the public’s trust in the research being conducted and how it is utilized,” said Lamont Pugh III, Special Agent in Charge, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Office of Inspector General – Chicago Region. “Making false statements to conceal potential conflicts violates that trust and the law. 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.”
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.
Acting U.S. Attorney Patel acknowledged the assistance of the Anchorage FBI Division who arrested Zheng, interviewed him and executed multiple warrants while he was detained, and the assistance provided by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Alaska.
This case was investigated by the FBI and Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General. Assistant United States Attorneys Douglas W. Squires and S. Courter Shimeall, Special Assistant United States Attorney Christopher N. St. Pierre, and Trial Attorney Matthew J. McKenzie with the Department of Justice’s National Security Division are representing the United States in this case. Chief U.S. District Judge Algenon L. Marbley imposed the sentence today.
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