Three New York University researchers from China divulged results from a federally funded study to Chinese competitors in exchange for tuition, rent and other expenses, federal prosecutors say.
Yudong Zhu, a U.S.-educated NYU professor, and Xing Yang, a lab engineer, were released on bail after appearing in federal court in Manhattan to face commercial bribery and other charges. They left court without speaking to reporters.
The third defendant, postdoctoral fellow Ye Li, was at large. Authorities believe he flew to China before charges were brought.
A criminal complaint alleges the three provided nonpublic information about magnetic resonance imaging to a medical company in China, United Imaging Healthcare, and a research institute supported by the Chinese government.
In a statement, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called the three men "foxes in the henhouse" who "deceived the university and others about their professional allegiances to competing Chinese interests."
Authorities described the 44-year-old Zhu as "an accomplished researcher and innovator in the field of MRI technology" who was hired as associate professor of radiology at NYU Langone Medical Center in 2008. His attorney told a judge that during his 20 years in the United States, he earned degrees from Vanderbilt and Stanford and had two children.
In 2010, Zhu received a multimillion-dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health for his MRI research, and later recruited Yang and Li to work for him. The complaint accuses him of arranging for United Imaging to pay for Yang and Li's expenses, including tuition for Yang and rent for Li, and says all three failed to disclose to NYU that they were still affiliated with both the company and the Shenzen Institute of Advanced Technology.
Earlier this year, NYU launched an internal review that uncovered the conflict of interest, authorities says. Last month, security cameras captured Yang taking photos of equipment in one research area, and emails showed that Zhu and Yang corresponded with United Imaging about "MRI equipment prototypes, experiments and project updates," the complaint says.
When confronted by NYU administrators, Li told them that he was paid thousands of dollars this year by the Chinese institute for work on its MRI project and that Zhu "performs the same work on research for that project as he does for the university," the complaint says.
NYU Langone Medical Center "is deeply disappointed by the news of the alleged conduct by its employees," says its spokesman, Christopher Rucas, adding that the three had been suspended.
The men face up to five years in prison if convicted of the bribery count. Zhu also faces up to 20 years on a separate charge of falsifying records in connection with his federal grant.
The case comes amid growing concerns by U.S. officials that China is stealing trade secrets, mainly through cyberattacks. Chinese officials say the accusations are groundless.
The Shenzen institute is a branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. It states its mission as promoting innovation and development through "self-owned intellectual property," U.S. authorities says.