Before Wenxia Man was arrested for attempting to broker the $50 million sale of military equipment to the Chinese government, she knew the risks.
In conversations with an undercover federal agent posing as a dealer, the California woman admitted she knew smuggling three jet engines and a drone out of the U.S. would be illegal, according to federal court documents.
Yet she pressed on, communicating with the fake dealer and a Chinese "technology spy," Xinsheng Zhang, who was acting as an official agent for the Chinese government to import military equipment and technical data, authorities said.
Now Man, a 45-year-old married mother of two young children and vice president of a tech parts company in San Diego who also goes by the name Wency, will serve out a 50-month sentence for her role in the plot. A judge handed down the ruling in a south Florida U.S. district court last week.
Man stood to receive a $1 million commission on the deal if it had gone through but nearly year-long discussions stalled in 2013.
The U.S. has had an arms embargo against China since 1990; no defense items can be sold or transferred to the country without written government approval, and Man wasn't a registered broker. Man was arrested in September 2015 and pleaded not guilty to federal charges of Conspiracy to Export and Cause the Export of Defense Articles from the United States and unlicensed brokering of defense articles. A jury convicted her in June.
Man, who was born in China, has been a U.S. citizen since 2006.
"The potential for harm to the safety of our fighter pilots, military personnel and national security which would occur had the defendant been successful is immeasurable," the assistant U.S. attorney wrote in his sentencing recommendation. "It is beyond doubt that Man and Zhang were engaged in efforts to allow the Peoples Republic of China to increase its military capabilities and might."
The plot goes back to at least March 2011 and continued until June 2013; Zhang and Man expressed interest in military items and ultimately became involved via phone and email in talks with the Department of Homeland Security undercover agent, according to court documents. They negotiated which items would be sold and discussed with the fake dealer the need to transport the items through a third country — naming South Korea and Israel as options — to avoid detection, according to court documents. Among the equipment requested was a MQ-9 Reaper/Predator B Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and three types of fighter jet engines.
Man repeatedly told the undercover agent that Chinese government would be the equipment purchaser, according to court documents. A secondary goal of the scheme, which was never carried out, was for China to reverse engineer the drone and jet engines to create its own.
But in a phone interview Sunday, Man's lawyer Alexander Strassman maintained that his client's actions never rose to the level of the charges.
"Her conduct didn't actually mature into a conspiracy," he said, days after the sentencing. The federal law regarding conspiracy, he added, "ought not to have captured this."
He added that Man had no knowledge of military paraphernalia before a contact in China asked her to inquire about them in the U.S.; she was an executive at a San Diego capacitor business that was struggling financially, Strassman said; Man ultimately put the alleged arms dealer and Zhang in direct contact and her role in the negotiations seemingly staled, which lead to a 27-month period before her arrest last September without evidence of criminal behavior, according to the defense attorney and court documents.
The judge ordered that Man receive mental health treatment during and after her prison sentence of 4 years and two months (she is being credited with time served for several months spent awaiting trial in jail). Man's lawyer argued that mental health problems, like depression, anxiety and panic disorders, contributed to a "diminished capacity" that partly explained her criminal behavior, as well as what he called "bizarre" outbursts in court.
"This was an interesting case where the principal target of a government investigation [Zhang] was in China and was never going to be gotten. The only person they could go after was Ms. Man," Strassman said.
Zhang, who is not believed to be in the U.S., has not been detained in connection with the charges.
An emailed request for comment on the case from China's embassy in Washington, D.C. was not immediately returned Sunday.
In May, the U.S. defense department released a report on military and security developments involving China that said Beijing is using extensive cyber and human espionage to acquire foreign military technology.