FBI arrests NASA researcher who allegedly failed to report ties to China


Simon Saw-Teong Ang, 63, of Fayetteville, was arrested by FBI agents Friday and charged with wire fraud, according to a criminal complaint and statement obtained by CNN.

Alleged authorities Ang, an electrical engineering professor and researcher at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville (UA) since 1988, cheated NASA and the university "by failing to state that he held other positions at a Chinese university and Chinese companies" in violation of conflict of interest guidelines, according to to an FBI Special Agent's statement in support of the complaint.

"Ang made false statements and failed to report his outside employment to UA, which allowed Ang to retain his UA job as well as obtain [US government] research funding, "according to the statement filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas.

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As part of the research, authorities said Ang received several grants and contracts from federal agencies, including NASA.

The statute states that while Ang's close ties to the Chinese government and employment with a number of Chinese companies would have rendered him ineligible to receive grants issued by US authorities while working for the university.

CNN on Tuesday reached out to a lawyer representing Ang for comment. An initial court appearance was held Monday.

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The university cooperates actively with the investigation

John Thomas, a university spokesman, said in a statement to CNN: "Simon Ang has been suspended without pay from his responsibilities with the university, and the university is actively cooperating with federal investigations into the matter."

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The FBI statement says authorities discovered Ang's alleged ties to Chinese interests after a university employee tried to identify the owner of a hard drive that was lost and found at a library on campus.

While reviewing the contents of the hard drive, which was later transferred to the FBI, the statement states, the employee discovered an email exchange between Ang and a visiting researcher from Xidian University in Xi'an, China.

In the September 2018 email discussion, Ang wrote that things were starting to get difficult for him because of the current political climate, according to the statement.

"You can search the Chinese site about what the United States wants to do with thousands of fellows," Ang wrote according to the complaint, adding, "Not many people here know that I'm one of them, but if this leaks out, my job will here be in deep trouble (sic). "

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According to the FBI, those associated with China's Thousand Talents program, are individuals who work or study outside of China in high-priority research fields. Although not traditional spies, investigators say they still collect research information sought by Chinese authorities.

Fraud

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"Although just participating in a talent plan is not illegal," said John Brown, senior FBI national security director, in congressional testimony last year, "surveys by the FBI and our partner agencies have revealed that participants are often incentivized to transfer to China the research they conduct in the United States, as well as other proprietary information that they can access and remain a significant threat to the United States. "
According to the criminal complaint, Ang revealed his participation in one thousand Talents Scholar programs to the university in 2014, but failed to report his involvement in other programs between 2012 and 2018.

While the FBI's reference to the Thousand Talents Scholar program concerns an area typically worked by the agency's investigating investigators, the federal charge spelled out in the criminal complaint against Ang relates to wire fraud rather than espionage.

Specifically, the authorities allege Ang committed fraud in 2016 by facilitating a proposal sent to NASA for a contract worth more than half a million dollars, without revealing potential conflicts of interest related to his covert engagement with Chinese entities. His proposal was eventually chosen by NASA.

If convicted, federal officials say, Ang faces a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

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