FILE - A general view of the Department of Justice building is seen in Washington, Feb 1, 2018.
FILE - A general view of the Department of Justice building is seen in Washington, Feb 1, 2018.

A former West Virginia University physics professor has pleaded guilty to a fraud charge in connection with his work for one of China's premier foreign talent recruitment programs, the Justice Department announced Tuesday.  

James Patrick Lewis, 54, pleaded guilty to one count of federal program fraud. He faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.

Lewis was tenured at the university from 2006 to 2019. In 2017, he signed a contract with the Chinese Academy of Sciences through its Thousand Talents Plan, agreeing to serve as a professor for three years in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation.

In order to take the job, Lewis put in a fraudulent paternity request to administrators at West Virginia University, asking to be released from his teaching duties in the fall of 2018 in order to serve as the primary caregiver for a child he and his wife were expecting, according to the Justice Department.

"Rather than caring for his newborn child, Lewis planned to work in China during the fall 2018 semester as part of his agreement with the Thousand Talents Plan," the Justice Department said. "Based on the false justification Lewis offered, WVUI granted his request."

The scheme allowed Lewis to bilk more than $20,000 from the publicly funded university. The Justice Department did not indicate when Lewis ended his work with the Chinese government or how much he received for his services.

"Lewis defrauded a public university into giving him leave so that he could satisfy his competing obligations to a Chinese institution, which he hid from the school," assistant attorney general John Demers said in a statement.

The Thousand Talents Plan lures overseas Chinese and foreign experts with competitive salaries, state-of-the-art research facilities and honorific titles, according to the FBI. The experts are expected to bring their knowledge and experience to China, "even if that means stealing proprietary information or violating export controls to do so."

In recent years, the FBI has stepped up its investigations of Chinese talent recruitment programs, concerned that the Chinese government uses them as part of its economic espionage activities.

Other investigations

Law enforcement officials said last month that the FBI is conducting roughly 1,000 investigations into suspected Chinese theft of U.S. intellectual property, with many expected to result in criminal charges against individuals and companies later in the year.

FILE - Harvard University professor Charles Lieber is surrounded by reporters as he leaves the Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston, Jan. 30, 2020.

In January, Charles Lieber, head of Harvard University's chemistry department, and a world leader in nanoscience, was indicted on charges of lying about receiving funding from Chinese research agencies.

Lieber was simultaneously receiving research funding from the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health. The arrests shed light on relationships between U.S. brainpower, the Chinese government and funding between the two that involves intellectual property theft.

Last year, a University of Kansas researcher was charged with collecting federal grant money while working full time for a Chinese university. A Chinese government employee was arrested in a visa fraud scheme that the Justice Department says was aimed at recruiting U.S. research talent. A university professor in Texas was accused in a trade secret case involving circuit board technology.

The National Institutes of Health announced last year that it is investigating whether a dozen researchers there failed to report taking funding from foreign governments, specifically China.