UPDATE: Former WVU professor sentenced on federal fraud charge involving Chinese government

Crime

UPDATE(July 30, 2020 4:58 p.m.)

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. – A former West Virginia University professor who pleaded guilty to a federal fraud charge has received his sentence.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Kleeh sentenced Dr. James Lewis, 54, of Fairview, to three months in federal prison. Lewis was also fined $9,363 for the cost of the incarceration and ordered to pay $20,189 in restitution to WVU, which is paid in full, according to U.S. Attorney Bill Powell. Kleeh also ordered Lewis to self-report to prison within 30 days.

ORIGINAL STORY(March 10, 2020, 6:00 p.m.)

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. – A former West Virginia University professor pleaded guilty to fraud that enabled him to participate in the People’s Republic of China’s “Thousand Talents Plan.”

Dr. James Lewis, 54, of Fairview, has admitted to a fraud charge involving West Virginia University, the Department of Justice announced.

Lewis pleaded guilty to a one-count information charging him with federal program fraud.

From 2006 to August 2019, Lewis was a tenured professor at West Virginia University in the physics department, specializing in molecular reactions used in coal conversion technologies. In July 2017, Lewis entered into a contract of employment with the People’s Republic of China through its “Global Experts 1000 Talents Plan.” China’s Thousand Talents Plan is one of the most prominent Chinese Talent recruit plans, which are designed to attract, recruit and cultivate high-level scientific talent in furtherance of China’s scientific development, economic prosperity and national security. These talent programs seek to lure overseas talent and foreign experts to bring their knowledge and experience to China and reward individuals for stealing proprietary information, according to the United States Attorney’s Office.

“Lewis defrauded a public university into giving him leave, so that he could satisfy his competing obligations to a Chinese institution, which he hid from the school,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers.  “I applaud the increased focus of the academic community to detect conflicts of interest and conflicts of commitment.  Only with more transparency will we stem the tide of covert ties to Chinese institutions and programs, ties meant by the Chinese government to result in the transfer of intellectual property from the United States. ”

“This case represents an attempt to serve China to the detriment of West Virginia University and the United States. Academia is a prime target for these activities and we will remain committed to prosecuting such fraud wherever it is found. I want to thank the FBI, the IRS and our prosecution team for a job well done,” said U.S Attorney Bill Powell, Northern District of West Virginia.

“The FBI knows the Chinese government intentionally targets the advanced technologies and technical expertise developed in the U.S. to give themselves a competitive advantage in the world marketplace,” said FBI Pittsburgh Special Agent in Charge Robert Jones. “Participation in a talent plan like the one Dr. Lewis was part of it is not illegal. But FBI investigations have revealed participants are often incentivized to transfer proprietary information or research conducted in the U.S. to China. This remains a significant threat and a high priority threat for the FBI. We are dedicated to making sure foreign governments know U.S. trade secrets cannot and will not be bought.”

According to Lewis’ contract, the Chinese Academy of Sciences agreed to employ Lewis as a professor for at least three years. In return, Lewis agreed to maintain an active research program that yielded publications in high quality, peer-reviewed journals, and to provide research training and experience for Chinese Academy of Sciences students, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

As a part of the program, Lewis was promised benefits, including a living subsidy of 1 million Yuan (approximately $143,000), a research subsidy of 4 million Yuan (approximately $573,000), and a salary of 600,000 Yuan (approximately $86,000). To receive the benefits, Lewis would have to work full time in China for three consecutive years, for no less than nine months per year, and would have to begin work no later than Aug. 8, 2018, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In March 2018, Lewis submitted a request to WVU for an alternate/parental work assignment, requesting to be released from his teaching duties for the fall 2018 semester in order to serve as the primary caregiver for a child he and his wife were expecting in June 2018. In fact, however, Lewis knew this request was fraudulent. Rather than caring for his newborn child, Lewis planned to work in China during the fall 2018 semester as a part of his agreement with the 1000 Talents Plan. Based on the false justification Lewis offered, WVU granted his request, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In the fall of 2018, Lewis spent all but three weeks of the semester in China while his newborn child remained in the United States. During this period, Lewis received his full salary from WVU pursuant to his alternate/parental work assignment. Lewis’ scheme allowed him to fraudulently obtain $20,189 from WVU, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

As a part of the plea agreement, Lewis has agreed to pay restitution in the amount of $20,189 in full to WVU.  Lewis is no longer employed by WVU, having resigned in August 2019.

Lewis faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

The FBI and the Internal Revenue Service investigated.  WVU cooperated in the investigation of this case.

West Virginia University released the following statement on the incident.

“We are deeply disappointed in this unacceptable behavior. When we discovered an irregularity, we reported it and cooperated with federal officials on this matter.”

WVU Statement on James Lewis

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