DOJ indicts Illinois professor for secretly working for China while getting US government grants

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The Justice Department indicted a Chinese-born Illinois college professor on two counts of wire fraud and a false statements charge for secretly working for a Chinese government-affiliated university and concealing those ties when applying for and receiving a $151,099 grant from the U.S. government’s National Science Foundation.

Mingqing Xiao, 59, was accused on Wednesday of “fraudulently” obtaining the federal grant money “by concealing support he was receiving from the Chinese government and a Chinese university” while he worked as a mathematics professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where he has been employed since 2000. Prosecutors said Xiao “applied for and received NSF grant funds … without informing NSF about another, overlapping grant he had already received from the Natural Science Foundation of Guangdong Province, China” and “failed to inform NSF that he was on the payroll” of Shenzhen University.

“Again, an American professor stands accused of enabling the Chinese government’s efforts to corruptly benefit from U.S. research funding by lying about his obligations to, and support from, an arm of the Chinese government and a Chinese public university,” Assistant Attorney General John Demers said Wednesday.

Kim Rendfeld, executive director of Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s communications, told the Washington Examiner that “Xiao is going to be placed on administrative leave, pending the university’s investigation into the issue.”

The indictment says in March 2019, while his U.S. grant was pending, Xiao submitted another proposal to the Natural Science Foundation of China, applying for funds as an employee of Shenzhen University, and “did not disclose the new Chinese proposal to NSF.” The U.S. government agency requires applicants to disclose all “organizational affiliations” and “current and pending support” — including “foreign government agencies.”

The United States has charged a host of researchers for concealing their China ties, and the Justice Department said in November 2020 that in the past year, it brought fraud, false statements, tax, smuggling, and other China-related charges against 10 academics working at U.S. research facilities.

A court filing alleges Xiao signed a contract with Shenzhen University in April 2018, “replacing an earlier contract.” The Chinese school “deposited Xiao’s monthly salary into an account at Ping An Bank.” When a U.S. government representative contacted him in April 2019 about his U.S. grant proposal to make sure he revealed any “worldwide sources,” Xiao falsely replied that “I don’t have other grants or pending proposals.”

Xiao, whose biography says he received a Ph.D. at the University of Illinois in 1997, earned $92,828 as a professor at the Illinois school, according to the Illinois Public Salaries Database. A Washington Examiner review showed Xiao was the principal investigator for at least three other NSF grants awarded to the Illinois university: $91,000 related to applied mathematics in August 2006, $210,000 related to mathematical biology in September 2010, and $90,000 related to computational mathematics in August 2014.

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An article from the Southern Illinoisan in January 2016 described a trip Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s “Altgeld Trio” of music professors took to China in November 2015. The piece added, “Altgeld Trio members were accompanied by SIU professor of mathematics, Mingqing Xiao, a native of Guangzhou. While the musicians were teaching and performing in northern and southern China, Xiao presented lectures at universities in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, extending SIU’s presence still further into these important Chinese cities.”

Xiao could face up to 20 years in prison on each count of wire fraud and as many as five years behind bars for the false statement if found guilty. The Justice Department said this is part of its China Initiative, “a broad, multi-faceted effort to counter Chinese national security threats and safeguard American intellectual property.”

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