Former West Virginia University professor pleads guilty to fraud charge involving WVU

A former West Virginia University professor admitted to a fraud charge involving WVU, the Department of Justice said. (Photo: MGN)
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CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (WDTV)-- A former West Virginia University professor admitted to a fraud charge involving WVU, the Department of Justice said.

Dr. James Lewis, 54, or Fairview, pleaded guilty to one-count information charging him with"Federal Program Fraud," according to the DOJ. Lewis was a tenured professor at WVU in the physics department, specializing in molecular reactions used in coal conversion technologies from 2006 to Aug. 2019.

In July 2017, Lewis entered into a contract of employment with the People’s Republic of China through its “Global Experts 1000 Talents Plan," DOJ officials said.

DOJ officials say China's Thousand Talents Plan is one of the "most prominent Chinese Talent recruit plans that are designed to attract, recruit, and cultivate high-level scientific talent in furtherance of China’s scientific development, economic prosperity and national security." The programs seek to lure overseas talent and foreign experts to bring their knowledge and experience to China and reward individuals for steal proprietary information.

“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,” said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers. “I applaud the increased focus of the academic community to detect conflicts of interest and conflicts of commitment. Only with more transparency will we stem the tide of covert ties to Chinese institutions and programs, ties meant by the Chinese government to result in the transfer of intellectual property from the United States. ”

“This case represents an attempt to serve China to the detriment of West Virginia University and the United States. Academia is a prime target for these activities and we will remain committed to prosecuting such fraud wherever it is found. I want to thank the FBI, the IRS and our prosecution team for a job well done,” said U.S Attorney Bill Powell, Northern District of West Virginia.

“The FBI knows the Chinese government intentionally targets the advanced technologies and technical expertise developed in the U.S. to give themselves a competitive advantage in the world marketplace,” said FBI Pittsburgh Special Agent in Charge Robert Jones. “Participation in a talent plan like the one Dr. Lewis was part of it is not illegal. But FBI investigations have revealed participants are often incentivized to transfer proprietary information or research conducted in the U.S. to China. This remains a significant threat and a high priority threat for the FBI. We are dedicated to making sure foreign governments know U.S. trade secrets cannot and will not be bought.”

The Chinese Academy of Sciences agreed to employ Lewis as a professor for at least three years, according to DOJ. In return, Lewis agreed to maintain an active research program that "yielded publications in high quality, peer-reviewed journals, and to provide research training and experience for Chinese Academy of Sciences students."

Lewis was promised benefits, including a living subsidy of 1 million Yuan (approximately $143,000), a research subsidy of 4 million Yuan (approximately $573,000), and a salary of 600,000 Yuan (approximately $86,000), DOJ officials said. In order for him to receive the benefits, he would've had to work full time in China for three years, for no less than nine months per year. Lewis would have to start no later than Aug. 8, 2018.

DOJ officials say in March 2018, Lewis submitted a request to WVU for an alternate/parental work assignment, requesting to be released from his teaching duties for the fall 2018 semester in order "to serve as the primary caregiver for a child he and his wife were expecting in June 2018"

DOJ officials say Lewis knew the request was fraudulent, and Lewis planned to work in China during the fall 2018 semester as a part of his agreement with the "1000 Talents Plan" instead of caring for the child.

WVU granted Lewis' request.

Lewis spent all but three weeks of the semester in China while his newborn child was in the United States, DOJ officials said. Lewis received his full salary from WVU.

DOJ officials said Lewis' scheme allowed him to fraudulently get over $20,000 from WVU.

As a part of the plea agreement, Lewis agreed to pay restitution of over $20,000 in full to WVU, according to the DOJ. He resigned from his position at WVU in Aug. 2019.

Lewis faces up to 10 years incarceration and a fine of up to $250,000.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jarod J. Douglas and Trial Attorney Evan N. Turgeon with the Department of Justice’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section, National Security Division, are prosecuting Lewis' case on behalf of the government. The FBI and the Internal Revenue Service investigated.

WVU cooperated in the investigation of this case.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael John Aloi presided