Arkansas scientist pleads in rice seed theft case

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – A 61-year-old scientist has pleaded guilty to a federal charge nearly three years after he was accused of stealing proprietary seeds developed in the U.S. and giving them to a delegation visiting from China.

Wengui Yan, of Stuttgart, Arkansas, pleaded guilty Monday in federal court in Kansas City, Kansas, to one count of making false statements to the FBI, the Justice Department said in a release Wednesday.

Yan was a geneticist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the Dale Bumpers National Research Center in Stuttgart, when he was originally charged in December 2013. He and another scientist Weiqiang Zhang were charged with conspiracy to steal trade secrets and theft of trade secrets. Zhang is a U.S. permanent resident and Yan a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Zhang, 50, an agricultural seed breeder at Ventria Bioscience’s facility in Junction City, is awaiting a trial.

According to Yan’s plea, U.S. Customs and Border Protection found the seeds in the luggage of a delegation from China as the delegation prepared to leave the U.S. in August 2013. The group had recently visited the USDA’s Stuttgart centre.

Yan admitted in the plea that he travelled with the Chinese delegation to an Arkansas rice farm and knew they would have an opportunity to steal seeds, and that after the seeds were stolen, Yan denied knowing about the theft.

Yan faces up to about a year and a half in federal prison. Under the original charges, he had faced up to 10 years in prison and fines up to $250,000 on each count.