By Carey Gillam
KANSAS CITY, Mo. Dec 12 (Reuters) - Three Chinese nationals - including one who attended a gala dinner for the then-vice president of China - have been charged in two separate cases of trying to steal seed-technology, trade secrets under development in the United States, authorities said on Thursday.
After a two-year investigation, a executive working for a Chinese conglomerate was arrested on charges of stealing inbred corn seed from production fields in Iowa and Illinois and trying to smuggle it into China, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa Nicholas Klinefeldt said.
FBI agents tracked Mo Hailong, director of the international business of the Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group Co, a part of DBN Group, using GPS surveillance and planted listening devices in cars that he and other unnamed conspirators drove on rural roads, court papers said.
The others included employees at U.S. seed companies who provided locations where experiments with genetically altered seeds took place; or they provided gene sequencing information for the bio-engineered seeds, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Iowa.
The thefts took place between September 2011 and October 2012, according to papers at the U.S. Court for the Southern District of Iowa.
Both Iowa-based DuPont Pioneer, the agricultural unit of DuPont, and Missouri-based Monsanto, two of the world’s largest agricultural seed companies, said they were cooperating with federal authorities in the ongoing probe.
Mo was discovered in an Iowa farm field Pioneer used to test corn seed products the company planned to bring to market, court documents said. Later, police were called when Mo and two others were discovered in a Monsanto test seed field.
Investigators found ears of corn stashed in an Illinois self-storage unit, dozens of bags of corn kernels stuffed under the seat of a car, and hundreds of pictures of corn fields and production facilities, court documents state.
In February 2012, Mo was tracked to Des Moines where he attended the state dinner hosted by Iowa for then-Chinese vice president Xi Jinping, who is now China’s president.
In the second case, two agricultural scientists from China were charged with trying to steal samples of a variety of seeds from a biopharmaceutical company’s research facility in Kansas.
Zhang Weiqiang, 47, of Manhattan, Kansas, and Yan Wengui, 63, of Stuttgart, Arkansas, were charged with conspiracy to steal trade secrets, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney for the District of Kansas Barry Grissom.
Grissom’s office declined to name the company, which had invested about $75 million in patented technology used to create seeds containing recombinant proteins, except to say it “has an extensive intellectual property portfolio of more than 100 issued and pending patents and exclusive licenses to issue patents.”
Grissom’s spokesman, Jim Cross, said the two cases were unrelated.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents found stolen seeds in the luggage of a group of visitors from China who were about to return home on Aug. 7, according to papers filed in the U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kansas.
The group had visited various agricultural facilities and universities in the Midwest, as well as the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center in Stuggart, Ark.
According to the complaint Zhang and Yan, both citizens of the People’s Republic of China, had arranged for the Chinese delegation to visit the United States last summer and gave them the stolen seeds.
If convicted, Zhang and Yan face a maximum penalty of 10 years in federal prison and a fine up to $250,000.
None of the three men nor lawyers for them could be reached for comment.