St. Louis, Missouri - A Chinese national formerly residing in Chesterfield, Missouri, was Thursday sentenced to 29 months in prison followed by three years of supervised release and a $150,000 fine for conspiring to commit economic espionage.
Xiang Haitao, 44, pleaded guilty to the charge in January 2022. According to court documents, Xiang conspired to steal a trade secret from The Climate Corporation, a subsidiary of Monsanto, an internationally based company doing business in St. Louis, Missouri, for the purpose of benefitting a foreign government, namely the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
“Xiang conspired to steal an important trade secret to gain an unfair advantage for himself and the PRC,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. “The victim companies invested significant time and resources to develop this intellectual property. Economic espionage is a serious offense that can threaten U.S. companies’ competitive advantage, and the National Security Division is committed to holding accountable anyone who steals trade secrets to benefit a foreign government.”
“The defendant took advantage of living and working in the United States to steal a valuable trade secret for the benefit of PRC entities,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “This type of theft threatens employers large and small in every state, and it imperils our economic competitiveness as a nation. Individuals entrusted with valuable trade secrets should be on notice that if they abuse that trust – especially for the benefit of foreign nations – we will hold them accountable.”
“Those who conspire to steal technology from U.S. businesses and transfer it to China cause tremendous economic damage to our country," said Assistant Director Alan E. Kohler Jr. of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division. "The government of China does not hesitate to go after the ingenuity that drives our economy. Stealing our highly prized technology can lead to the loss of good-paying jobs here in the United States, affecting families, and sometimes entire communities. Our economic security is essential to our national security. That’s why at the FBI protecting our nation’s innovation is both a law enforcement and a top national security priority.”
“This is the first economic espionage conviction ever in the history of the Eastern District of Missouri,” said Acting Special Agent in Charge Akil Davis of FBI’s St. Louis Field Office. There are less than two dozen such convictions nationwide. Economic espionage convictions are rare because the elements required to prove state-sponsored theft is extremely difficult,” “Today’s sentencing is a culmination of more than five years of tenacity and dedication by our agents and federal prosecutors. I commend their success in protecting the victim company and ultimately our U.S. economy.”
According to court documents, Xiang was employed by Monsanto and its subsidiary, The Climate Corporation, from 2008 to 2017, where he worked as an imaging scientist. Monsanto and The Climate Corporation developed a digital, online farming software platform that was used by farmers to collect, store and visualize critical agricultural field data and increase and improve agricultural productivity for farmers. A critical component to the platform was a proprietary predictive algorithm referred to as the Nutrient Optimizer. Monsanto and The Climate Corporation considered the Nutrient Optimizer a valuable trade secret and their intellectual property.
In June 2017, the day after leaving employment with Monsanto and The Climate Corporation, Xiang attempted to travel to China on a one-way airplane ticket. While he was waiting to board his flight, federal officials conducted a search of Xiang’s person and baggage. Investigators later determined that one of Xiang’s electronic devices contained copies of the Nutrient Optimizer. Xiang continued on to China where he worked for the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Soil Science. Xiang was arrested when he returned to the United States in November 2019.
The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection investigated the case.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Matthew Drake and Gwendolyn Carroll for the Eastern District of Missouri, Senior Trial Attorney Heather Schmidt and Trial Attorney Adam Small of the National Security Division’s Counterintelligence and Export Control Section, and Senior Counsel Jeff Pearlman and Assistant Deputy Chief Matthew Walczewski of the Criminal Division’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section prosecuted the case.