MILWAUKEE (AP) — The attorney for a researcher accused of stealing a possible cancer-fighting compound from the Medical College of Wisconsin entered not-guilty pleas on her client's behalf Thursday to federal charges of tampering with a private computer and lying to a federal agent.
Hua Jun Zhao, 42, sat silently during the brief federal hearing while an interpreter translated the proceedings into Mandarin for him.
Zhao had been indicted Tuesday on charges of computer tampering and lying. A criminal complaint previously charged him with economic espionage but the charge was superseded by the indictment, meaning it no longer applies unless he's indicted on that charge as well.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen A. Ingraham, who's prosecuting the case, told the judge he plans to file a motion seeking to dismiss the complaint of economic espionage without prejudice. Doing so without prejudice would allow him to revisit the charge later, he said.
"The circumstances surrounding that charge are still under investigation," he told The Associated Press after the hearing.
In the original complaint, Zhao was accused of stealing three vials of the compound along with academic research that he allegedly planned to pass off as his own in China.
The computer-tampering charge arose from allegations that Zhao accessed school computers remotely and deleted files related to research on the compound. The college was able to recover the files. Zhao denied accessing the server or deleting files and said he didn't understand the FBI agents' questions, the original complaint said.
Zhao's public defender, Juval Scott, entered pleas of not guilty to the two charges.
Afterward, she said her client, who has been in the U.S. for about seven years, still has language issues. She said he understands simple English but that she'd never have him sit through court proceedings without an interpreter by his side.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Patricia Gorence set a trial date of June 17.
The two charges for which Zhao was indicted carry a maximum combined penalty of 15 years in prison and a $500,000 fine. That's the same maximum penalty he would face if convicted of the original charge of economic espionage.
The drug compound in question is called C-25. A research team at the medical college was studying whether it could help kill cancer cells without damaging healthy ones, school spokeswoman Maureen Mack said. The compound is still in early stages of research and has not yet advanced to clinical testing.
The lead researcher noticed three vials of the compound missing on Feb. 22. School security video showed Zhao was the only person who entered the researcher's office that day. Federal investigators questioned him about the vials on Feb. 27, but Zhao claimed he didn't understand their questions, the complaint said. The school immediately placed him on administrative leave.
Federal authorities subsequently searched Zhao's home and found a receipt for shipment of a package to Zhao's wife in China along with two airline tickets from Chicago to China.
They also found an application to the National Natural Science Foundation of China seeking research funding for C-25. In the application, Zhao wrote in Mandarin that he discovered the C-25 compound himself and was seeking funding to continue his research in China.
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.