A federal judge has found a former Virginia Tech professor guilty of defrauding the federal government by winning grants to conduct new research that he’d actually already completed in China.
Yiheng Percival Zhang, 47, had won $600,000 in small business grants from the Energy Department and the National Science Foundation to perform work under his start-up firm Cell-Free Bioinnovations and stood accused of swindling the government of more than $1 million, according to local accounts.
The proposals were, in fact, for research Zhang, who specialized in artificial sweeteners, had previously conducted in China, where he had been a paid researcher for the Tianjin Institute of Industrial Biotechnology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, according to the Justice Department.
Chief Judge Michael F. Urbanski in the Western District of Virginia found Zhang guilty last week of one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States, three counts of making false statements, and one count of obstruction by falsification.
At trial, Zhang’s defense had contended the case was brought due to paranoia about China and its efforts to steal technology and other business research. Prosecutors alleged Zhang worked with another Chinese graduate student at CFB Inc. who has since returned to China.
Monday’s announcement made no mention of corporate espionage, however.
Zhang has yet to be sentenced.
He was a member of Virginia Tech’s department of biological engineering who boasted to staff he would be a Nobel Prize recipient but resigned his post following his arrest. Virginia Tech apparently became suspicious of Zhang’s work and conducted its own investigation that included reading his emails and analyzing a forensic copy of his hard drive.
It wasn’t clear Monday if the university alerted federal authorities or the other way around. A spokesman for the university said Monday that Virginia Tech takes all allegations of fraud seriously but declined comment on Zhang’s particular case.
• James Varney can be reached at email@example.com.
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