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Former UA professor pleads guilty to making false statement after scrutiny on China ties

by Jaime Adame | January 22, 2022 at 4:20 a.m.
A photo provided by the Washington County jail shows Simon S. Ang, a former electrical engineering professor at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville who was charged with multiple counts of wire fraud. (Washington County sheriff's office via AP)

FAYETTEVILLE -- Simon Ang, a former University of Arkansas, Fayetteville professor, pleaded guilty on Friday to one count of making a false statement as prosecutors agreed to drop wire fraud charges related to his ties to China.

The agreement states that "a sentence of one day and one year incarceration is the appropriate sentence in this matter," along with a $5,500 fine.

Federal prosecutors in recent years have filed criminal charges against some U.S. researchers as part of an effort known as the U.S. Department of Justice's China Initiative.

Some, like Ang, have been accused of failing to properly disclose China ties. A few have faced economic espionage charges, but no such charges were filed against Ang.

Ang faced 55 counts of wire fraud after prosecutors said he failed to disclose to government funding agencies -- and to UA -- his ties to China and Chinese companies. Most of the charges related to Ang's pursuit of NASA and U.S. Air Force research grants.

The false statement came when Ang was asked by an FBI agent whether he would be listed as the inventor on Chinese patents, the plea agreement states.

[DOCUMENT: Read the plea agreement in the case » arkansasonline.com/122ang1/]

"Ang stated the following: 'Yeah, I am not the inventor, I don't even know what that is,'" according to the plea agreement.

The plea agreement states that "Ang's name or Chinese birth name" is on 24 Chinese patents as a co-inventor.

Ang, 64, was born in Malaysia and has been a U.S. citizen since 1986, his attorney, Drew Ledbetter, has said.

At the time of his arrest in May 2020, Ang led UA's High Density Electronics Center, or HiDEC. He was released on a $200,000 bond to home detention on May 29, 2020.

The university suspended Ang without pay after his arrest and then fired him less than two months later. Ang had been a member of UA's faculty since 1988.

On Friday, Ang appeared in U.S. District Court in Fayetteville to plead guilty, according to court documents.

The court filing states that if the court accepts the plea agreement, "the government will move to dismiss the remaining counts" against Ang.

A U.S. Department of Justice announcement of the guilty plea stated that Ang's sentencing is expected in about four months. If the court fails to accept the agreement, its terms state that "the Defendant will be given an opportunity to withdraw from the plea."

[DOCUMENT: Read the case's superseding agreement » arkansasonline.com/122ang2/]

Prosecutors and defense attorneys, ahead of a scheduled February trial, had filed separate motions about what evidence might be appropriate to consider.

Ang, in court filings, had argued that while he participated in what is known as a Chinese talent program, testimony about Chinese government talent programs should be excluded at trial.

FBI Director Christopher Wray in a 2020 talk described Chinese talent programs as a government effort "to entice scientists to secretly bring our knowledge and innovation back to China."

Court documents filed by prosecutors referred to Ang's participation in a talent program run by China, also referred to as the People's Republic of China or the PRC.

The plea agreement, filed in U.S. District Court in Fayetteville, states: "Ang did not list his PRC talent awards on the University of Arkansas annual conflict of interest disclosure forms. He also did not disclose his Chinese patents to the University of Arkansas."

Interim U.S. Attorney David Clay Fowlkes and Ledbetter signed the agreement, as did Ang.

Through a spokesman, the U.S. attorney's office for the Western District of Arkansas declined further comment Friday.

The plea agreement states that Ang "held multiple positions with companies in the Peoples Republic of China," going on to list three by name.

"Ang's involvement included taking leadership roles in the companies," the plea agreement states.

Ledbetter, in an email Friday, said a family business led to Ang's being listed as a "co-inventor" on Chinese patents.

"Dr. Ang's brother had a small LED Light bulb company based in Singapore. Dr. Ang served in an unpaid position as Chief Technology officer to help his brother"s business," Ledbetter said.

"The patents were related to this company," Ledbetter said. "Dr. Ang was not materially enriched in any way."

Court documents filed earlier referred to the Justice Department's China Initiative, which has its critics. Hundreds of academics have signed onto letters asking U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to end the effort.

Prosecutors in the Ang case stated in a footnote to a motion filed earlier this month that the "China Initiative reflects the strategic priority of countering national security threats posed by the People's Republic of China."

In a different case, federal prosecutors on Thursday dropped criminal charges against MIT professor Gang Chen. The Associated Press reported that Chen had been accused of concealing ties to the Chinese government.

Told of the outcome of the Chen case, Ledbetter referred to the China Initiative.

"I think the US Government is beginning to understand that the China Initiative is a misguided strategy that has strayed far from its original goals. Scaring researchers is counterproductive and ultimately will only suppress collaborative research at academic institutions," Ledbetter said.

Asked about Ang's future beyond the final outcome of the criminal prosecution, Ledbetter said: "Dr. Ang plans to retire and spend his time focused on his family."

In addition to charges related to Ang's pursuit of U.S. research grants, other counts of wire fraud related to a limited liability company said to have been set up by Ang and also university salary payments made to him, according to the indictment against him.

He also was charged with two counts of making a false statement in application and use of a passport, as well as another count of making a false statement, for 59 counts against him in all.

While Ledbetter stated that Ang did not violate UA policies, Mark Rushing, a spokesman for the university, in an email Friday said that prior to Ang's termination "the University concluded that Dr. Ang violated multiple University policies."

"The plea agreement confirms that Dr. Ang had a role in multiple external entities (including multiple business enterprises), which were never disclosed according to the University's longstanding policies on conflict of interest, conflict of commitment, and outside employment," Rushing said, adding that UA found that Ang "improperly used University facilities to advance private business interests."

Rushing also stated that "as confirmed by today's plea agreement, he failed to comply with the University's policies governing intellectual property."

Print Headline: Ex-UA professor admits false statement; fraud case dropped

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