Project 1000 immunologist pleads guilty to using U.S. funds to help China with research.

Zheng Songguo, a rheumatology professor and researcher involved in the Chinese government’s Thousand Talents Program, pleaded guilty to charges that he concealed his ties to the Chinese government from the federal government while applying for funding for immunology research, the Justice Department announced in a Nov. 12 statement.

Zheng, 58, is a professor of internal medicine who led an autoimmune research team at The Ohio State University and Pennsylvania State University. He admitted that when he applied for research funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), he concealed material facts about his participation in China’s “Thousand Talents Program” and his association and collaboration with a Chinese university controlled by the Chinese government. According to court documents, Zheng Songguo has participated in the China Talents Program since 2013. The U.S. Department of Justice alleges that Zheng Songguo pledged to use his U.S. research to contribute to biomedical research in the People’s Republic of China, and that he failed to disclose conflicts of interest or his commitments to foreign countries to his U.S. employer or the National Institutes of Health.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Zheng Songguo was arrested on May 22 of this year while on a connecting flight to China. He had arrived in Anchorage, Alaska, on a chartered flight that day to catch another chartered flight back to China. At the time of his arrest at the airport, he was “carrying three large pieces of luggage, a small suitcase, a suitcase with two laptop computers, three cell phones, several USB hard drives, several silver ingots, several expired Chinese passports used by family members, and Chinese land deeds, among other things.”

Zheng Songguo appeared in federal court in the Southern District of Ohio on Thursday and pleaded guilty. The judge accepted his guilty plea. It is believed the maximum penalty for making a false statement to the federal government is five years in prison. The judge will announce his final sentencing decision at a future date. As part of his guilty plea, Zheng Songguo admitted that he lied when applying for funding in order to use the roughly $4.1 million grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health to develop China’s expertise in rheumatology and immunology.

John C. Demers, assistant secretary for national security at the U.S. Department of Justice, said, “Federal research funding provided by U.S. taxpayers is intended to benefit American society, not subsidize the Chinese government. The American people deserve complete transparency when federal funds are used for research, and we will continue to hold accountable those who choose to lie about their relationships with foreign governments in order to defraud them of these funds.”

“Mr. Zheng promised China that he would strengthen its biomedical research. He is preparing to flee the United States after he learned that his U.S. employer has begun an administrative process over his compliance with U.S. taxpayer-funded grant rules.” David M. DeVillers, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, said.” Today’s guilty plea reinforces our proven commitment to both protect our nation’s position as a global leader in research and innovation and to punish those who seek to exploit and undermine that position.” Separately, The Columbus Dispatch, a local media outlet, reported the same day that an Ohio State University spokesperson emailed the newspaper that Chung Chung had failed to disclose to the university his extensive paid work with a foreign institution and that Ohio State had terminated him.

Zheng Songguo, originally from Chizhou, Anhui Province, studied at Anhui Medical University as an undergraduate and went to the United States in 1999 to do postdoctoral research after completing his postgraduate studies at Fudan University’s Shanghai Medical College, according to public records. D. in molecular immunology at the University of Orléans and the French National Center for Science, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Medicine and the University of Southern California (USC) School of Medicine from 1999 to 2002, during which time he was a visiting scientist at the NIH. 2003-2012 he was an assistant professor and associate professor at USC. and Director of the Center for Immune Tolerance and Regulation, USC ambassador and member of the University Professor Promotion Committee. He is also a full professor at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). 2013-2014 he is a tenured full professor at the Pennsylvania State University (PSU) and director of the Autoimmune Diseases Research Center, among others.