A case of industrial espionage linked to China concluded with prison time, property forfeiture, and possible deportation on Wednesday, as 46-year-old Mo Hailong—a Chinese citizen described as a “permanent resident of the United States” by the New York Times—pled guilty to charges of stealing high-tech seed corn from American companies.
Five of Mo’s alleged co-conspirators were Chinese citizens who fled the United States. His sister, who is married to the billionaire chairman of the Chinese technology group all of the conspirators worked for, was originally charged in the case, but the charges were dropped after the court ruled her instant messages could not be admitted as evidence in the trial. The prosecutors felt those IMs were a major element of the case against her, so they dropped the charges, and she was allowed to return to China.
This was not a terribly sophisticated operation. The conspirators simply “cruised corn fields in Iowa and Illinois in search of seed company test fields, where they removed seeds and corn,” according to the Wall Street Journal. They smuggled the stolen engineered seeds back to China, “sometimes hidden inside boxes of Orville Redenbacher microwave popcorn.”
Chinese engineers would then attempt to reverse-engineer the seed corn and recreate its unique genetic traits. The Wall Street Journal was unable to reach representatives of the Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group, an agriculture company with a seed division whose subsidiary Kings Nower Seed employed the conspirators, for comment.
The New York Times reports the investigation into Mo’s activities began when security for DuPont Pioneer “detected suspicious activity, including Chinese men crawling around in cornfields.” This led to an FBI investigation which included “planting GPS monitors on rental cars and tapping cellphones.” The conspirators also raided corn fields belonging to Monsanto.
Despite the rather prosaic nature of the crime, Mo’s lawyer Mark Weinhardt said it was a “complicated case with many grey areas, legally and factually.”
One interesting wrinkle is the government’s invocation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. It is said to be the first time a trade-secret theft has been prosecuted under FISA, and a possible signal that the U.S. government plans to move more aggressively against corporate espionage.
Weinhardt said his client had recently completed difficult cancer treatments, making his health a “paramount concern.” He added that the family was “relieved that they can avoid the strain of a long and complex trial,” and Mo looked forward to “getting this matter behind him and moving forward in life with his wife and children.”
The fate of the family may yet be in doubt. Mo has resided in the United States since 1998, and his wife and children are U.S. citizens, but part of his plea agreement involved acknowledging that he might be immediately deported after a prison sentence of up to five years. He also agreed to surrender ownership of farms in Illinois and Iowa that were used in his corn-theft operation.
Monsanto and DuPont both expressed thanks to the U.S. government for acting to protect their intellectual property, according to the Wall Street Journal.