Wengui Yan, 61, of Stuttgart, Arkansas, plead guilty to one count of making false statements to the FBI while working as a geneticist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the Dale Bumpers National Research Center in Stuttgart, according to officials.
Yan, a scientist who worked with rice, admitted Monday that he knew about plans to steal samples and send them to China, officials said.
In his plea, Yan admitted that on Aug. 7, 2013, agents of U.S. Customs and Border Protection found stolen seeds in the luggage of a group of visitors from China preparing to board a plane to return home, according to authorities.
The group had visited the facility in Stuttgart.
Yan admitted that before the Chinese group arrived, a co-defendant in Kansas had asked him for seeds and Yan had declined because the seeds were protected. The co-defendant told Yan about other individuals seeking to steal samples of the seeds. When the delegation came to Stuttgart, Yan traveled with them to a rice farm where he knew they would have an opportunity to steal seeds, officials said.
After the theft, Yan denied knowing about the plans to steal the seeds or about the theft itself.
Investigators said they also learned that Yan attempted to cover up a trip he made to China to visit the crops research institute that sent the delegation to the United States.
China has long been implicated in economic espionage efforts involving aviation technology, paint formulas and financial data. Chinese knockoffs of fashion accessories have long held a place in the mainstream, according to officials.
But the case of Mo — who was arraigned last week in Des Moines, pleaded not guilty and remains in custody — and a separate one in Kansas last year suggest that the agriculture sector is becoming a greater target, something that industry analysts fear could hurt the competitive advantage of farmers and big agriculture alike, according to a New York Times 2014 report.
“Agriculture is an emerging trend that we’re seeing,” Robert Anderson Jr., assistant director of counterintelligence at the F.B.I. told the New York Times. Adding that the trend has developed internationally in the last two years. “It’s pretty clear cut. Before then, the majority of the countries and hostile intelligence services within those countries were stealing the other stuff.”
Sentencing is set for a later date. Under the plea agreement, Yan facing up to 20 months in federal prison.
Co-defendant Weiqiang Zhang, 50, of Manhattan, Kansas, is awaiting trial.
Zhang is presumed innocent unless proven guilty.
*Acting Assistant Attorney General McCord and Acting U.S. Attorney Beall commended the FBI’s Little Rock and Kansas City Field Offices, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Arkansas.
McCord and Beall also commended Trial Attorney Matt Walczewski for the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section, Trial Attorneys Brian Resler and Evan Williams for the Criminal Division’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Rask of the District of Kansas for their work on the case.