Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Former Ohio State University professor pleads guilty to hiding China affiliation

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An Ohio State University professor formally admitted Thursday that he did not disclose his affiliation with a Chinese university when securing grants in what investigators called a scheme to share federally funded medical research with China.

Song Guo Zheng, 58, of Hilliard, is facing up to five years in prison after pleading guilty in federal court in Columbus to a felony count for using false documents in a fraud scheme.

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Zheng, appearing before Chief U.S. District Judge Algenon L. Marbley electronically because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and speaking through an interpreter, admitted the the single count, via a bill of information and prior to the grand jury consideration of the case, during his arraignment Thursday. Marbley accepted the plea and will announce a final sentence later.

“Zheng promised China he would enhance the country’s biomedical research. He was preparing to flee the United States after he learned that his American employer had begun an administrative process into whether or not he was complying with American taxpayer-funded grant rules,” U.S. Attorney David M. DeVillers said in a released statement. “Today’s plea reinforces our proven commitment to protect our country’s position as a global leader in research and innovation, and to punish those who try to exploit and undermine that position.”

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Zheng has been on unpaid leave from his position at Ohio State, which described him in a 2019 report from the division of rheumatology and immunology at OSU’s Wexner Medical Center as “a nationally and internationally renowned researcher” with a “pioneering career and enthusiasm.”

OSU spokesman Ben Johnson said in an email to The Dispatch that Zheng “failed to disclose his extensive paid work at a foreign institution to Ohio State, and the university is terminating his employment.”

Zheng worked at the University of Southern California and Pennsylvania State University prior to his hire at OSU last year. According to documents, he and his research group secured more than $4 million in National Institutes of Health grants for projects while receiving overlapping funding from the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

According to documents, “Zheng’s plan was to take his research, primarily developed through federal grant funding, back to China in order to benefit China. … As Defendant Zheng and his superiors in China well-knew, if there was full disclosure of a parallel Chinese operation harvesting resources and talent paid by U.S. taxpayers, the NIH would have never issued the grants in the first place.”

Zheng was confronted by Ohio State officials about his failure to disclose outside research support and other affiliations. He left town about a week later and secured a seat on a charter plane in an attempt to travel to China.

He was arrested in Alaska with “three large bags packed for a long, if not permanent, journey,” including two laptop computers, several USB drives and silver bars, according to court documents.

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