U.S. government worker pleads guilty in plot to steal rice for Chinese

Yan Wengui is shown in this Pulaski County Sheriff's Office booking photo taken December 11, 2013. REUTERS/Pulaski County Sherrif's Office/Handout via Reuters

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A geneticist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture pleaded guilty on Monday to making false statements to the Federal Bureau of Investigation when questioned about plans to send U.S. rice samples to China, the Justice Department said Wednesday.

Wengui Yan, 61, of Arkansas admitted that a group of Chinese tourists in 2013 told him of their plans to steal engineered U.S. rice samples, but he first told investigators he had no knowledge of the plan.

The number of international economic espionage cases referred to the FBI is rising, up 15 percent each year between 2009 and 2014 and up 53 percent in 2015, according to the FBI.

Agricultural espionage, like the case involving Yan, allows thieves to reproduce genetically modified plants in China, skipping years of research and millions of dollars typically invested in development of the highly resistant seeds.

The majority of economic espionage cases reported involve Chinese nationals, a law enforcement official said in April, shortly after a Chinese man named Mo Hailong pleaded guilty to sending hybrid corn seeds stolen from Iowa fields back to China.

Yan refused to give the group of Chinese visitors rice seeds they requested because they were protected, but he did travel with them to a rice farm where he “knew they would have an opportunity to steal seeds,” the Justice Department said in a statement.

Under Yan’s plea agreement, he faces up to 20 months in federal prison.

Reporting by Julia Edwards; Editing by Sandra Maler