A cancer researcher from China on Thursday pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about his theft of 21 vials of biological research from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center nearly a year ago, Massachusetts US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling’s office said.
Zaosong Zheng, 31, entered his plea in US District Court in Boston to one count of making false, fictitious, or fraudulent statements, prosecutors said. Zheng’s sentencing is slated for Jan. 6, and under terms of a plea deal, he has agreed to be returned to China from the United States following that hearing, Lelling’s office said.
Norman S. Zalkind, a lawyer for Zheng, said in a phone interview that his client opted for a plea deal because “all he was guilty of was making a false statement.”
On Dec. 9, 2019, prosecutors said, Zheng stole the 21 vials, hid them in his luggage, and tried to take them out of the country on a flight bound for China. But authorities at Logan, officials said, discovered the vials hidden and improperly packaged in a sock inside one of Zheng’s bags.
Zheng initially said “no” when asked by investigators if he was traveling with any biological items or research, prosecutors said, but later admitted to stealing the vials from a Beth Israel lab. He also said he planned to use the vials to conduct research in his own lab and publish the results under his own name, according to Lelling’s office.
Zalkind, however, insisted that Zheng “didn’t steal” the vials. Asked why they were found in Zheng’s luggage, Zalkind said, “I could go into a whole lecture about” how scientists operate. “He operated like a scientist.”
In addition, Zalkind said, prosecutors “would have gone forward” with a theft charge “if they felt he stole them.”
Prosecutors said the charge Zheng pleaded guilty to carries a maximum prison term of five years and a fine of up to $250,000, though sentences are “imposed by a federal district court judge based upon the US sentencing guidelines and other statutory factors.”
Per Zheng’s plea agreement, the parties are recommending a sentence of time served plus three years of supervised release, unless he’s “deported or removed from the United States,” in which case the supervision “will be terminated.”
Zalkind said Zheng had remained in custody for three months after his arrest before he was released on bail.
Zheng’s deportation is likely, according to the plea deal, as he “requests that an order be issued by this Court for his removal to” the People’s Republic of China. Foreign nationals convicted of federal crimes are typically subject to deportation orders.
The parties aren’t recommending a fine, the plea agreement said, since Zheng’s “not able, and is not likely to become able” to pay one.
Asked for comment on Zheng’s guilty plea, Teresa Herbert, a spokesperson for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, issued a brief statement praising law enforcement officials who investigated the matter.
“We are deeply proud of the breadth and depth of our research programs,” Herbert said “Any efforts to compromise research undermine the hard work of our faculty and staff to advance patient care. We are grateful for the diligence and professionalism of federal law enforcement in this case.”
Zheng’s arrest at the time reflected a wider crackdown by the US government in the prior year on Chinese scholars and researchers suspected of espionage and scientific theft. Several Boston-based researchers had apparently been stopped at Logan as part of the enforcement effort, the Globe reported at the time.
Beth Israel fired Zheng after his arrest Dec. 10 at Logan. The medical facility is a Harvard teaching hospital, and university officials had said shortly after Zheng’s arrest that his educational exchange visa had been revoked.
Material from prior Globe stories was used in this report.