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UCF takes hot seat as House panel widens investigation into China ties

The committee also is looking into similar ties at Moffitt Cancer Center and the University of Florida.
A view from inside the College of Health and Public Affairs at the University of Central Florida. The university is taking its turn in the spotlight Tuesday as a legislative committee continues its investigation into China's involvement with Florida research institutions. [University of Central Florida]

A lab assistant in Orlando shipped secret submarine parts to China and later was sentenced to federal prison. Her boss, a top professor, fled the U.S. and returned home to China as FBI agents closed in. Another professor with dueling jobs at the University of Central Florida and a China university promised to end that problematic arrangement, but never did.

Those and other details, presented Tuesday to a legislative panel in Tallahassee, added some intriguing plot twists to the evolving story of China’s effort to capitalize on U.S.-based research — and how it has played out in Florida. While some chapters unfolded two or three years ago, officials said their importance is clearer now in light of more recent revelations.

In a hearing before the Florida House’s Select Committee on the Integrity of Research Institutions, UCF joined Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center and the University of Florida as the third state institution to face scrutiny over the flow of U.S. research money and intellectual property to China.

The Orlando school terminated one professor and three others resigned over the last three years related to its China ties.

Committee members questioned Rhonda Bishop, vice president for compliance and risk at UCF, about the university’s protocols and four closed cases that garnered the attention of the FBI, Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Commerce. The panel, headed by state Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, aims to learn more about the issue and develop ways to safeguard Florida institutions.

In some cases, UCF researchers did not disclose ties to Chinese universities or “talent” programs designed to recruit top scientists and other professionals with the aim of bringing their work to China. In others, they were employed at universities in China, where they recruited graduate students to work in their U.S. labs or sought more funding.

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

Among the academics discussed Tuesday was Juin Liou, an electrical engineering professor at UCF who also was working at University of Electronic Science and Technology in Chengdu, China. Liou had worked for more than 30 years at UCF and was earning a salary of about $200,000 there.

The Orlando Sentinel reported in 2017 that he resigned over inappropriate ties to a Chengdu after UCF received an anonymous complaint in 2015. He was caught shipping computer devices to China without the required U.S. license. These devices, or “probe needles," have the potential for military use as they help make computers work faster, Bishop said.

“He continued to travel to China, where he recruited graduate students to work in his lab,” even after the university instructed him three times to sever ties, Bishop said. He committed in writing not to travel to China for five years, an investigation report said, but continued to do it anyway.

The university determined that Liou traveled to Asia 22 times between 2012 to 2016, and that 12 of his 55 publications were in collaboration with a co-author from the Chengdu university, the report shows. Research projects from four of the 12 publications were funded by the Chinese institution. Liou never reported his ties to Chengdu on any conflict of interest reports, UCF said.

“Remember, it was a different climate in our country at that time,” Bishop said when lawmakers pressed her on why the university gave Liou three warnings before his termination. “At that point, he was cooperating. Then we dug deeper.”

Three other UCF researchers resigned related to ties to China. They are Boquing Gong, GuoJun Qi and Xinzhang Wu. University officials said Wu fled the country after he resigned in May 2018.

Wu’s boss at UCF looped in the university’s compliance office when it became known he was employed with a Chinese university and participating in a talents program, Bishop said. When he was asked to come in for an interview related to an investigation, Wu’s wife showed up in his place.

“She said he left for China due to a family emergency,” Bishop said. Not long after, UCF officials received a handwritten resignation from Wu.

Amy Yu was a laboratory assistant who worked for UCF under Wu for just six months from the fall of 2013 to 2014. She was federally indicted for sharing secrets with China in 2016.

Bishop said Yu was “not on our radar” at the time she was employed by the university, but officials were later aware that the FBI considered her a person of interest.

Court documents from the Middle District of Florida show that Yu entered a plea agreement and was sentenced to 21 months in prison for shipping submarine parts to China on counts of acting as a foreign government agent while living in the U.S. and conspiracy to commit international money laundering.

Gong resigned in Dec. 2017 after he asked UCF if he could receive a $200,000 donation from a Chinese technology company called Huawei, Bishop said. UCF denied his request as Huawei “was a concern and potential threat to the U.S.,” and he resigned.

Qi resigned in 2018 after he requested a one-year sabbatical to work for Futurewei, the Chinese company’s arm based in Seattle. UCF denied his request and Qi “was not pleased,” Bishop said. So he resigned in August that year and moved to Seattle.

RELATED: Faculty members held jobs in China while working for UF, report says

In a meeting of the House committee last week, a Tampa-based FBI special agent told members about China’s Thousand Talents program, describing it as a national threat.

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 researchers have been criminally charged.

No charges have been filed against the six 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.

Moffitt is cooperating with a federal investigation, said general counsel David De La Parte. He also said the cancer center is evaluating a possible lawsuit 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.

Tuesday’s committee meeting marked the first time lawmakers began discussing how to better safeguard all Florida research institutions from these kinds of foreign threats. Some suggested a more centralized way of reporting instances of international meddling.

“If a university is in contact with the FBI or law enforcement, that needs to be reported and collected centrally,” said Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura. “It hasn’t been reported to the state of Florida, and the state university system seems to be the best place to do that.”

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