Judge declines to release Arkansas scientist accused of stealing trade secrets

LITTLE ROCK — A Chinese-born scientist accused of conspiring to steal trade secrets must remain in the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service until his initial court appearance, a federal judge ruled Friday.

At a detention hearing in U.S. District Court in Little Rock, Wengui Yan of Stuttgart testified that if he were released from custody he would not attempt to flee the country. Magistrate Thomas Ray said that given the circumstances of the case, the risk of flight was too great to release Yan, even with an ankle monitor.

A federal criminal complaint alleges that Yan, a research geneticist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center in Stuttgart, and Weiqiang Zhang of Manhattan, Kan., who worked as an agricultural seed breeder for a biopharmaceutical company in Junction City, Kan., identified as “Company A,” conspired to steal legally protected seed samples and put them into the hands of a delegation from China.

According to the complaint, members of the delegation, whose visit to the U.S. was arranged by the defendants, were preparing to fly out of the U.S. on Aug. 7 when customs agents found in their luggage several envelopes containing various types of agricultural seeds. Federal investigators determined that among them were seeds that had recombinant proteins produced solely by Company A.

The complaint alleges that Zhang has been stealing seeds from the company and storing them in his home.

Some of the seeds also were of varieties that Yan would have had access to at the Dale Bumpers Center, although he did not have authority to distribute them, the government alleges. The delegation’s travels included a visit to the Dale Bumpers Center.

Investigators also searched the defendant’s computer records and found that both had written reports, in Chinese, detailing their activities to aid the Chinese government. One report by Yan, titled “2012 Yan Wengui’s Activities in Serving the Nation,” listed among his activities providing rice research breeds to accelerate China’s agricultural research, according to the complaint.

FBI Special agent Anthony Alimenti testified Friday that Yan had received wire transfers ranging from $80,000 to $160,000 from his brother in China. He said Yan claimed the money was repayment for money he had provided for his niece to attend college, but the money Yan paid and the money he received do not appear to match.

Chris Tarver, a lawyer with the federal public defender’s office, argued that Yan was not a flight risk because he is a naturalized citizen, his wife lives in Arkansas, he has lived in the U.S. since 1987 and his passport has been seized by the FBI.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John Ray White argued that Yan — now on administrative leave from the USDA — was a flight risk because he had shown an interest in moving back to China. He said Yan has made five trips to China in the last two years, which the USDA did not sanction and was not aware of, and that he has the financial means to find a way there with or without a passport. Ray agreed.

“There’s a number of paragraphs in that complaint that make it clear that both Dr. Zhang and Dr. Yan would like to return to China,” he said.

Zhang has a detention hearing set for Tuesday in Kansas City, Kan., where the case is to be prosecuted. Tarver said he did not know when Yan would make an initial appearance there.

If convicted, both men could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison and fined up to $250,000.