Secret Chinese Plot To Smuggle Dangerous Bio-Toxins To China Busted At University Of Florida

On May 30, 2024, the Justice Department exposed a secret Chinese plot at the University of Florida involving researcher Pen Yu and student Leticia Zheng smuggling dangerous bio-toxins to China.

Secret Chinese Plot To Smuggle Dangerous Bio-Toxins To China Busted At University Of Florida 1

According to federal court records, a research employee and students at the University of Florida have been linked to an illegal, multimillion-dollar scheme that is being looked into by the Justice Department. The scheme involved the fraudulent purchase of thousands of biochemical samples of toxic substances and dangerous drugs, which were then illegally shipped to China over seven years after being delivered to a campus laboratory.

The president of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at UF was one of the students involved in the plan. The group publicly opposed a Florida law that was passed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis last year that restricts the admission of Chinese instructors and students to higher education institutions. It also prohibits hiring Chinese students to work in academic labs without specific authorization.

The student, Nongnong “Leticia” Zheng, revealed on Friday in an interview that she was the subject of a grand jury inquiry last year and that the Justice Department was getting ready to file criminal charges against her. This information was communicated to her in writing by a federal prosecutor. Ryan Maguire, a federal public defender from Tampa, has been assigned to her, she added. Government agents, according to her, have threatened to deport or put her in jail.

Other than that, it was unclear if the UF research staff member or the other students who were named as co-conspirators in federal court documents had been charged or taken into custody yet. Prosecutors claimed that the UF employee worked in the stockroom of one of the university’s research facilities.

Fentanyl and cocaine are among the drugs shipped to China

What the Chinese government claimed to be pure, non-contagious forms of the whooping cough toxin (pertussis) and cholera toxin (cholera toxin) were among the goods smuggled into China. A potentially fatal intestinal illness, cholera can result in severe dehydration. Vaccination can prevent whooping cough, a highly contagious bacterial infection that can cause intense coughing fits, vomiting fits, and even respiratory difficulties.

Small amounts of highly pure pharmaceuticals, known as analytical samples, including fentanyl, morphine, MDMA, cocaine, ketamine, codeine, methamphetamine, amphetamine, acetylmorphine, and methadone were among the other goods carried to China, according to court filings. Typically, scientific or medical equipment would be calibrated using such little samples.

It is illegal to export the materials to China.

One of the students involved, according to the prosecution, was a Chinese national majoring in marketing at the business college the previous year. She had consented to alter her UF email signature to purport to be a biomedical engineering student to make purchases without drawing attention to herself, according to court documents. Throughout the hundreds of pages of court documents in the case, a single line quoted an email stating that the woman’s first name was “Leticia.”

Zheng, a business school senior majoring in marketing, is president of the Chinese Students and Scholars organization, which bills itself as having official embassy approval. According to university records, Zheng was enrolled as recently as the recently concluded spring semester. By combining personal details from university data shared by none of the other 58,441 UF students enrolled last semester, Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, was able to identify “Leticia” as Zheng.

Zheng, who claimed to have spent the majority of her life in China, said in a moving interview conducted Friday at her apartment complex that the scheme’s administrators had tricked and mistreated her. She said that they had asked the Chinese student organization for assistance in locating paid interns. There are restrictions on how or if international students with study visas may work for compensation.

“This case seems to be really big,” she said. “What I was doing was, like, just a little work, and I didn’t get paid that much.”

Zheng claimed that looking back, she saw warning signs like inconsistent reimbursement for her administrative duties or a dearth of documentation. She said that she didn’t know what the drugs she was instructed to order were. She was comforted by the man who has entered a plea deal as the scheme’s mastermind, and she didn’t know she was in trouble until the Justice Department got in touch with her, she claimed.

Zheng expressed her desire to be let to complete her degree and her confusion about the university’s lack of protective policies.

“I do need help, honestly,” she said, adding: “I would like to see if there’s anything that can help me not get charged and get out of this whole mess.”

Zheng’s organization labeled Florida’s new rule barring Chinese students in university labs as “nationality-based discrimination” earlier this year, claiming it violates academic freedom and transparency values and obstructs international collaborations.

UF email addresses used to buy drugs

Prosecutors claimed that the organizers of the scam also bribed other UF students besides Zheng to permit the ordering of the narcotics using their UF email accounts. According to court documents, organizers paid the UF research employee hundreds of dollars worth of Home Depot gift cards in addition to covering travel and borrowing expenses. Additionally, according to prosecutors, organizers utilized the email addresses of two UF researchers who had already graduated from the institution by 2015. They were not identified as accomplices.

In a statement, the university stated that it has been working with the Justice Department for weeks, but it would not say specifically whether or not any students had been expelled or fired from UF.

“We will have more details to share regarding UF’s administrative actions as the DOJ’s criminal case unfolds,” spokesman Steve Orlando said. “Employees who break the law will be separated from employment, and students who break the law will face suspension.”

The government stated that the program spanned from July 2016 until May 2023. In February 2022, former Republican Sen. Ben Sasse, a prominent China hawk on Capitol Hill who previously referred to Beijing’s threat as the “defining national-security challenge of our age,” assumed the role of university president.

The scheme will undoubtedly intensify the heated policy discussion on how to stop China’s rise to prominence and reduce its influence. TikTok has previously been outlawed from entering universities and colleges in Florida, and nationals of China and several other nations are not allowed to own homes or buy property in major portions of the state.

Secret Chinese Plot To Smuggle Dangerous Bio-Toxins To China Busted At University Of Florida 2
Students walk near the 157-foot-tall Century Tower at the University of Florida in Gainesville. A University of Florida researcher and an unspecified number of students have been implicated in an illegal scheme investigated by the Justice Department to fraudulently buy biochemical products that were delivered to a UF laboratory over seven years before they were illegally shipped to China, according to federal court records. (Gabriel Velasquez-Neira/Fresh Take Florida)

Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida who serves as the senior Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee and is said to be a candidate for the running mate position in the upcoming presidential election, has alerted lawmakers in Florida to what he described as a Chinese campaign to intervene in politics by targeting universities.

Professor Eric Jing Du of the UF Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering, who serves as the faculty adviser for the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, stated in an interview on Friday that he was not informed of the criminal inquiry and that Zheng never informed him that she was placing an order for biomedical equipment.

Du, who has been the group’s adviser for the past two years, said the two had collaborated while denouncing the conspiracy detailed in court documents. In 2022, he said, he independently engaged her for a brief period to create some photos for an academic project.

“It’s like some UF students are trying to make a profit on this without knowing the potential consequences,” he said. Du expressed concern that inquiries like as this one would result in additional measures taken against foreign students. Students from the following “countries of concern” are the focus of a new Florida law: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, and Syria.

“This is a very complicated time,” Du said. “I do know the contributions and hard work of the students from the countries of concern, the vast majority of them are doing the right thing and contributing to UF and Florida. I just hope the decision makers, the leadership, the Legislature won’t amplify the impact of this.”

Ringleader pleads guilty

Pen “Ben” Yu, 51, of Gibsonton, Florida, close to Tampa, was identified by the prosecution as the scheme’s mastermind. He has already entered a guilty plea to conspiracy to conduct wire fraud in federal court. On August 2, he will be sentenced, and he could face up to 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

According to the Justice Department, Yu gave Zheng, the UF student, a credit card last year so she could make many fraudulent orders. Court documents revealed that Yu ordered her to write to the biomedical company, stating that she was “working in collaboration with other researchers” in biotechnology and asking for “a good price since we will be purchasing these items routinely.”

Prosecutors claimed that whenever the biological orders were received by UF, the research staff member would deliver them, or provide them in some other way, to Yu, who then shipped them to China. Legal records did not list the UF researcher in charge of the facility, which housed the stockroom where the materials were transported, as a co-conspirator.

“Ben, I believe I have 35 or 36 boxes for you today,” the UF research employee wrote in 2016.

Yu gave the worker $10 for each hour that he drove to meet him, plus gas. “I will pump the gas for you at the place where we meet,” he told the research employee, prosecutors said. Yu disguised the shipments to China as legal “diluting agents,” court records show.

Assistant Secretary for Export Enforcement in the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security Matthew S. Axelrod stated, “Faking an affiliation with an academic research lab to obtain controlled biochemical materials, and then sending those materials to China, is not only wrong but illegal,” He added other universities ought to be on notice regarding the criminal inquiry.

Axelrod called it “yet another fact pattern for universities to beware of — the misuse of academic institutions by outsiders who seek to obscure the actual customer of controlled items.”

Who Yu was working for in China was unclear. The government claimed he referred to his boss as his supervisor in intercepted messages. A phone call left by Fresh Take Florida was not immediately answered by Yu or his Orlando defense attorney, Robert Earl Zlatkin.

A sales representative for the sample-selling company, Sigma-Aldrich Inc., located in Massachusetts, has also entered a guilty plea to wire fraud conspiracy. On July 23, Gregory Muñoz, 45, of Minneola, Florida—a city west of Orlando—will receive his punishment. According to court filings, Muñoz sold the company’s wares to multiple Florida universities, including UF.

In 2020, Yu sent Muñoz an email stating that his firm required ten boxes of cholera toxin, a chemical that is strictly restricted by the US government, he acknowledged.

“This is the cholera toxin,” Muñoz replied. “Remember, we had issues in the past and they require a lot of documentation signed by the university.”

According to court documents, Muñoz learned in December 2022 that his employer was looking into him and forewarned Yu. Despite this, Yu proceeded to place hundreds more orders for shipments to China in 2023. Muñoz wrote, “Wow, I am really screwed now.” “Anti-kickback, anti-bribery.”

In February of the previous year, Yu sent Muñoz an email asking, “Do you still need Leticia to send you this order?” Additionally, neither Muñoz nor his Orlando-based attorney, Fritz J. Scheller, returned a call right away.

A third individual, 47-year-old Jonathan Rok Thyng, who shared Yu’s Gibsonton residence, consented to enter a guilty plea to conspiracy to conduct a federal crime. He may face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. According to the prosecution, Thyng transported some of the shipments to China and ordered other biomedical materials. On June 18, he was scheduled to formally enter his plea.

Additionally, neither Thyng nor his attorney, Bjorn Erik Brunvand of Clearwater, answered the phone right away.

The UF marketing student and others placed orders for biomedical items, which Thyng shipped from Tampa to China in April 2023, according to the prosecution. The package was intercepted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Prosecutors claim that the scheme’s organizers paid $4.9 million for $13.7 million worth of biomedical goods. The Justice Department stated that orders done through UF qualified for considerable discounts, which included free items and free overnight shipping.

According to court documents, prosecutors recommended that Yu, Muñoz, and Thyng be given leniency since they acknowledged their offenses, committed to cooperating with investigators, and took responsibility for them. According to the prosecution, everyone is an American citizen. The Justice Department requested that the judge order Yu and Muñoz to lose $100,000 apiece, claiming that this was the total amount they had earned over the years.

Company reports scheme to feds

The plan came to an end when the business, MilliporeSigma, a division of Darmstadt, Germany-based Merck KGaA, learned of the UF hoax and informed the US authorities of its involvement. Companies who self-report export offenses and cooperate may be exempt from prosecution under new regulations from the Justice Department.

The business said in a statement on Friday that Muñoz was fired and that, to avoid prosecution, it worked with investigators. According to the government, this was the first time those regulations had been used.

“Because of MilliporeSigma’s timely disclosure and exceptional cooperation, a rogue company insider and his accomplice pled guilty to fraudulently diverting millions of dollars’ worth of biochemicals to China, and the company will not be prosecuted,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco in Washington.

“As national security and corporate crime increasingly intersect, companies that step up and own up under the department’s voluntary self-disclosure programs can help themselves and our nation,” she said.

Last year, GreatGameIndia reported that Anatoly Maslov, Alexander Shiplyuk, and Valery Zvegintsev, who worked at the Khristianovich Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, were accused of allegedly handing hypersonic missile secrets to China.

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