An Arkansas professor who received millions of dollars of grant research money from the U.S. government, including $500,000 from NASA, was arrested for allegedly failing to disclose his extensive financial connections to China.
Simon Saw-Teong Ang, 63, was arrested on Friday on charges related to wire fraud. If convicted, Ang faces a statutory maximum punishment of 20 years in prison.
Ang, a professor and researcher at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville since 1988, is the director of the school’s High Density Electronics Center. The FBI noted Ang has been the primary investigator or co-investigator on U.S. government grant contracts totaling more than $5 million. At the same time, court documents show Ang was also a secret participant in China’s controversial Thousand Talents Program and concealed his extensive business dealings in China.
“The complaint charges that Ang had close ties with the Chinese government and Chinese companies, and failed to disclose those ties when required to do so in order to receive grant money from NASA,” the Justice Department said. “These materially false representations to NASA and the University of Arkansas resulted in numerous wires to be sent and received that facilitated Ang’s scheme to defraud.”
The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, led by Sen. Rob Portman, released a 109-page bipartisan report in November, concluding foreign countries “seek to exploit America’s openness to advance their own national interests,” and “the most aggressive of them has been China.” It found China used its Thousand Talents Program over the past two decades to exploit access to U.S. research labs and academic institutions.
The 19-page criminal affidavit, authored by FBI special agent Jonathan Willett, was filed Friday and unsealed Monday.
“Ang intentionally made materially false representations to the University of Arkansas and NASA which caused with transmission to be sent and received in the form of grant applications and grant funding that he would not otherwise have been entitled to receive,” the FBI asserted. “Specifically, the emails, information, and facts summarized below indicate that And has close ties with the Chinese government and Chinese companies and failed to disclose those ties when required to do so in order to receive grant money from NASA.”
Ang applied for and was awarded a NASA grant for a November 2016 proposal titled “500° Celsius Capable Weather-Resistant Electronics Packaging for Extreme Environment Exploration.” The government funding was worth $512,904 between 2017 and 2020, and he got it despite NASA’s “China Funding Restriction.” The NASA contracting officer overseeing the $500,000 grant said it never would have been awarded to Ang if they had known about his vast China connections.
Ang’s alleged scheme was uncovered by accident on June 20, 2019, when a hard drive of his was turned in to the school’s lost-and-found. A staff member trying to figure out who it belonged to opened up one of the files, labeled “Ang_Confidental.pdf,” which contained September 2018 emails between himself and a Chinese researcher, showing Ang was concealing his role in the Thousand Talents Program.
“You can search the Chinese website regarding what the U.S. will do to Thousand Talent Scholars,” Ang said in the email. “Not many people here know I am one of them but if this leaks out, my job here will be in deep troubles.”
The FBI conducted searches unearthing more evidence.
On Aug. 6, 2019, the FBI obtained a Chinese news article showing that Ang also goes by Hong Sizhong and revealing he was listed as one of “30 Thousand Talents Program experts” in China.
The FBI said Ang did disclose to the university his participation regarding the “Thousand Talents Scholars” in 2014 but did not disclose his participation in other programs in 2012 through 2018. The bureau contended that “Ang’s disclosures in 2014 demonstrate his intent to execute a scheme to defraud the University of Arkansas and NASA” because he “obviously knew about the requirement to disclosure such conflicts of interest and deliberately kept all such conflicts of interest” from them.
Ang also held multiple positions in China without reporting them, according to court documents.
He failed to disclose his role at Binzhou Maotong Electronic Technology Company from 2011 through 2018 as the principal investigator for a hydrogen fuel cell research project, which a Chinese article claimed the annual production value was $292 million. He also declined to disclose his position as chief technology officer at Binzhou Gande Electronic Technology from 2011 to 2018. He also concealed his stake in Jiangsu Xuanzhi New Materials and Technology Company, where he claimed in an email to own between 7% and 9% of the shares.
The Justice Department’s China Initiative, launched in 2018, aims to combat both Chinese malign influence (ranging from cyberespionage to technology theft) and its Thousand Talents Program, which is aimed at stealing research. The department charged Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei in a global racketeering scheme earlier this year.
On Friday, Dr. Xiao-Jiang Li, a former Emory University professor and Chinese Thousand Talents Program participant, pleaded guilty to filing false tax returns after he worked overseas at Chinese universities and did not report any of his foreign income on his federal tax returns.
The Department of Education’s Foreign Gift and Contract Report website shows $15.76 billion in foreign funding on U.S. campuses between 2014 and 2019, including $1.17 billion from China. Both the Education Department and Justice Department prosecutors have gone after universities for concealing their foreign funding.
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