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Chinese nationals charged with stealing corn technology

A Chinese national has been accused with "theft of trade secrets" after a two-year investigation into his work in the U.S. uncovered his plans to take seed and seed-trait technology from DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto to China unlawfully.

Mo Hailong, or "Robert Mo," director of international business for the Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group Company, became a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. about two years ago, during which time he's been accused of conspiring to engage in "criminal activity to steal the intellectual property of U.S.-based seed manufacturing companies and transporting that stolen intellectual property back to China for the benefit of their China-based seed company," according to a court document from the U.S. District Court for the southern district of Iowa, where he was arraigned on Thursday.

Mo is accused of working with two coconspirators as well as "several potential 'insiders' at U.S.-based seed companies" who are "suspected of conspiring with Mo to provide the locations of test fields being utilized to grow bio-engineered seed and/or providing the underlying gene sequences for bio-engineered seed developed by the victim companies," court documents say.

The investigation into Mo began in late July 2011, when a court file shows FBI agents were dispatched to the Pioneer facility in Johnston, Iowa, where they first learned of Mo's suspicious actions in and around Pioneer parent seed cornfields near Tama, Iowa. It was at that time it was discovered that Mo and the chairman of his company's seed corn subsidiary, Kings Nower Seed, had investigated that same field in early May of the same year, even making contact with the farmer. The men "approached the grower of the Pioneer test field and asked what he was planting in his field. The grower replied seed corn," the court document, written by FBI Special Agent Mark Betten, says. "According to the grower, one of the Asian males said that they had been attending an agriculture conference in Ames, Iowa."

The next day in early May, Mo was discovered in another nearby field, this time alleging he was a researcher from the University of Iowa. After being questioned by a field manager, Mo is alleged to have driven "down through the ditch in order to leave quickly.

"The field manager described Mo as being very nervous, and his face was flushed," the document says, adding the license plates on Mo's car were later traced back to a rental car company in Kansas City, Missouri, and had been rented by Mo Hailong of Miami, Florida.

"FBI agents have subsequently confirmed that there were no USDA or Iowa State University agriculture-related conferences being hosted during the time period, indicating Mo's statements to the farmer and the field manager were both false. The grower's field was not marked with any identifying information indicating it was a test field for Pioneer HI-Bred, and the field is in a very remote and rural area of Iowa -- not immediately off a well-traveled route of travel," Betten says. "An Omaha Division FBI agent confirmed with Pioneer officials that this particular field was growing one of their two or three most highly-anticipated inbred corn seed products they expected to bring to market within the next several years. Pioneer officials confirmed that the theft of that product would result in an extremely significant economic loss to the company."

Later in 2011, Mo was discovered conducting similar actions in a Monsanto seed field near Bondurant, Iowa, after renting a car in the Chicago area. By late September, the FBI investigation revealed Mo had mailed 15 packages from a West Des Moines, Iowa, UPS Store to an address in Boca Raton, Florida, listing the contents as "corn samples."

Later, in early 2012, Mo and alleged coconspirators were part of a Chinese delegation that went to Iowa along with then-Chinese vice president Xi Jinping, who is now the nation's president. They joined the group under aliases and later allegedly met with a Pioneer employee before returning to Chicago O'Hare Airport the following day.

Similar incidents took place in Illinois and Indiana in the next year, ultimately raising further suspicion when Mo offered to purchase Pioneer seed corn from a seed dealer in Dallas Center, Iowa, offering to pay in cash. Mo allegedly later did the same at a seed dealer's in Pattonsburg, Missouri.

Charges were ultimately brought to Mo and his coconspirators after airport inspections of their luggage revealed "stashed" corn seed. The GPS tracking data from rental cars also confirmed Mo's rural travel.

"Based on the foregoing, your affiant believes there is probable cause to believe that violations of 1832 (theft of intellectual property) have or are occurring," Betten concludes. Mo and coconspirators Zhang Weiqiang and Yan Wengui face fines up to $250,000 and a maximum of 10 years in federal prison.

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