FAYETTEVILLE -- The recommendation to fire University of Arkansas, Fayetteville electrical engineering professor Simon Ang accused him of misappropriating intellectual property "of the University" for his own benefit.
Ang faces multiple counts of wire and passport fraud following a federal indictment in U.S. District Court in Fayetteville. An FBI affidavit alleges that he failed to disclose ties to China and Chinese companies while pursuing NASA and U.S. Air Force research grants. Ang has pleaded innocent.
The FBI in recent months has pursued action against several U.S. researchers and academics accused of not properly disclosing ties to China. The U.S. Department of Justice has launched at least a half-dozen cases against U.S. researchers this year.
At issue in many of the cases are Chinese "talent programs," including a program known as Thousand Talents. Such programs have been described by FBI Director Christopher Wray and others including U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., as vehicles for recruiting researchers to siphon away technology innovation.
UA fired Ang in July, less than two months after his May 8 arrest.
A university memo dated before the firing recommendation states that Ang was listed as an inventor on 25 Chinese patents or patent applications, and that he also was named directly or through associated entities in additional patent applications filed in Europe, India and Singapore.
"The claimed subject matter of these patent applications is directly related to the duties and responsibilities and the field of work Dr. Ang pursued at the University of Arkansas," states the UA memo, released by the university along with other documents from the inquiry leading to Ang's firing for cause. The Democrat-Gazette requested the documents under the state's public disclosure law.
Ang awaits a jury trial scheduled for Oct. 5 in U.S. District Court in Fayetteville. Drew Ledbetter, his attorney, did not respond to an email and phone message seeking comment.
A HARD DRIVE
Charlie Robbins, a public information officer for the U.S. attorney's western district office in Arkansas, said prosecutors are aware of the university's findings about Ang's alleged misappropriation of intellectual property. Robbins declined to comment, citing the ongoing case.
The FBI affidavit states that Ang "did disclose his participation to UA regarding 'Thousand Talents Scholars' in 2014 but did not disclose his participation in other programs in 2012 through 2018."
The affidavit also described a computer hard drive turned into the lost-and-found bin at UA's Mullins Library. The FBI affidavit stated that authorities were alerted to details of an email exchange found on the computer drive by a library staff member.
Documents released by the university include an email exchange between Ang and another researcher mentioned in the affidavit, as well as an email from a library staff member alerting UA faculty member Juan Balda, head of UA's electrical engineering department, and Engineering Dean John English to the email exchange.
"After only a couple of minutes of looking for a likely owner, I stumbled upon a document showing that one of your faculty members is a Thousand Talent Scholar," states the email from the library employee, whose name is redacted.
The FBI affidavit states a library staffer provided details in June 2019, but UA's release of the email record shows it to be dated April 9, 2019. Its subject line is "A Concern."
The email from Ang has the subject "Confidential" and is dated Sept. 15, 2018.
The name of the email recipient is redacted. In the email exchange, Ang states that "there are things that are becoming very difficult for me recently because of the political climate."
Then, in an apparent reference to the Thousand Talent program, Ang states: "Not many people here know I am one of them but if this leaks out, my job here will be in deep troubles."
The records released by UA show some phrases highlighted in Ang's email exchange. UA spokesman Mark Rushing said the records of the exchange show the email as it appeared when brought to the attention of university officials.
Undated pages of notes report on a meeting that apparently took place April 17, 2019, between Ang and UA administrators, including UA's top research officer, Daniel Sui, after the email was discovered.
According to the notes, Ang said in the meeting that his involvement with the Thousand Talent program had to do with his brother, a "pioneer in the LED lighting business in China." About 20 or 21 years ago, Ang said, according to the meeting notes, the Chinese program provided funding to his brother's company. This led to Ang, a senior technical adviser, becoming involved in the program through his brother's company.
'UNETHICAL CONDUCT' FLAGGED
The FBI affidavit alleges Ang's involvement with multiple Chinese companies. The university's materials include pages written in Chinese as well as an apparent listing of patent applications.
The UA memo about Ang's pursuit of patents, dated June 11, states that "a cursory overview indicates the University has been deprived of very significant revenue that would have been normally associated with the international commercialization of technologies protected and licensed under Board Policies naming Dr. Ang as an inventor while employed at the University of Arkansas."
David Snow, UA's interim vice chancellor for economic development, wrote the memo.
English, the engineering dean, wrote the June 15 letter addressed to Ang recommending his dismissal.
Under the heading "Unethical Conduct," English accused Ang of failing to disclose business activities and "external affiliations," leading to a conflict of interest.
"Further, it appears that you have used your University affiliation to benefit your private business interests in an unauthorized manner. It also appears that you have failed to disclose intellectual property that you were required to disclose under University policy and that you have misappropriated intellectual property of the University," English's letter states.
English's letter also says "the apparent volume of your outside engagements constitutes a conflict of commitment under University policy and would not have been approved even if properly disclosed."
The letter addressed to Ang states that "when asked about your activities in 2019, it appears that you deliberately misled University officials about the nature and scope of your outside activities, including extensive private business activities related to your University employment."
Ang earned a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering from UA in 1980, according to a university alumni directory. According to the Justice Department, he began working at the university in 1988 as a professor and researcher.
Asked if the university has taken action to challenge the international patents pursued by Ang, UA spokesman Rushing replied in an email that it "wouldn't be appropriate to discuss during an ongoing criminal investigation."
Rushing gave an identical reply when asked if there was an estimate of lost revenue because of any misappropriated intellectual property.
He said UA policies "require employees to provide a full and complete disclosure of any material capable of legal protection arising out of University research," and that the policies "anticipate voluntary compliance."
"Proactive review by the University beyond typical self-disclosure may occur in some limited instances in order to better understand or evaluate matters regarding outside employment or conflict of interest matters," Rushing said.
The university continues "to actively assist with the investigation as needed," he said.