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FBI official addresses China influence investigations at Moffitt Cancer Center, UF

Florida lawmakers were briefed on the investigations into Chinese attempts to meddle — and steal — American-funded research.
Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa [Moffitt Cancer Center]

FBI Special Agent Michael McPherson painted a picture of espionage and fraud as he described the threat Chinese influence and exploitation poses to Florida’s research institutions and universities.

McPherson, the field director of the Tampa office, spoke Monday to lawmakers in Tallahassee about the federal investigations into Chinese meddling that has shaken Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center and the University of Florida in recent months. Several esteemed scientists have resigned amid the probes.

Related: Top Moffitt Cancer Center doctors failed to disclose payments from China, report says

“It’s not a fair playing field. They play by different rules," McPherson said about China, which is accused of stealing grant research proposals from American institutions, and recruiting and paying American scientists to perform scientific work for China.

McPherson spoke broadly about the threat of the “Communist government of China” and the country’s Thousand Talents recruitment programs, which aim to boost China’s competitiveness by bringing top Chinese researchers and entrepreneurs back home from overseas while also attracting foreign experts.

A legislative committee lead by State Rep. Chis Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, met Monday afternoon to hear from officials with Moffitt Cancer Center, the University of Florida and the FBI address instances of Chinese meddling in American-funded research. This is the second time the Florida House of Representatives select committee, which was created by Speaker José Oliva in December, met to discuss the investigations into China’s interest in the state’s academic and research institutions.

The committee aims to learn more about the issue and develop ways to safeguard Florida institutions, to prevent this from happening again.

Related: Florida House speaker calls for investigation into China-Moffitt ties

“Research institutions are spending a lot of time developing patents," McPherson said. "But China can steal that information, re-engineer it and patent it while one of our own entities is still trying to develop it.

“This theft of our intellectual property challenges and endangers our economic prosperity.”

The National Institutes of Health, one of the largest funding sources for medical research in the world, began warning universities of undisclosed foreign activity in 2018. Since then, the agency has launched 170 formal inquiries into American academic institutions with questionable ties to China. Researchers were fired at Emory University and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. In most cases, the FBI was involved. Some researches have been criminally charged.

No charges have been filed against the six esteemed scientists who were forced to resign from Moffitt in December, including the former CEO, Dr. Alan List, and Thomas Sellers, a vice president and director at Moffitt. However, Moffitt is cooperating with a federal investigation, said general counsel David De La Parte. He also said the cancer center is evaluating a possible civil suit against its former leaders.

University of Florida officials said "investigations are ongoing” into the four researchers that parted ways with the university in connection to undisclosed ties to China.

Related: Moffitt returns $1 million to state. Money was linked to scientist with China ties.

Last week, Moffitt officials turned over more than $1 million to the state “in an abundance of caution” that was used to pay scientists tied to the China investigation. Howard McLeod, the former medical director of the DeBartolo Family Personalized Medicine Institute at Moffitt and a senior member in Moffitt’s department of cancer epidemiology, received a state-funded endowment for his salary and support staff.

One of McLeod’s staff members, Dr. Yijing (Bob) He, worked as a full-time Moffitt employee from 2014 to 2019 but resided and worked entirely in China — unbeknownst to the cancer center. He was paid $491,358 by Moffitt during that time frame. Moffitt said those funds have been returned to the state.

Committee members listened to University of Florida officials detail the new protocols they have in place which are outlined on a public website. Lawmakers also had many questions for De La Parte, including timelines of when the six scientists resigned and how much information was known when the organization hired researchers like McLeod.

“This is nothing new. The Chinese government is not the only one doing this, but they are the most prolific,” McPherson said. “Others have been doing it for years. We’re behind on this threat at this point.”

Earlier in the day, Sprowls tweeted a YouTube video featuring Secretary of State Michael Pompeo addressing the National Governors Association, where he warned about the threat of China’s influence.

“Competition is happening with China inside your state and it effects our capacity to protect America’s vital national security functions," Pompeo said in the Feb. 8 video. Universities "are another arena of competition with China. I know governors that you don’t run these institutions on a day-to-day basis, but you often have impact on those that do.”

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