Date: March 10, 2020
Dr. James Patrick Lewis, of Fairview, West Virginia, has admitted to a fraud charge involving West Virginia University, the Department of Justice announced.
Lewis pleaded guilty to a one-count information charging him with "Federal Program Fraud." From 2006 to August 2019, Lewis was a tenured professor at West Virginia University in the physics department, specializing in molecular reactions used in coal conversion technologies. In July 2017, Lewis entered into a contract of employment with the People's Republic of China through its "Global Experts 1000 Talents Plan." China's Thousand Talents Plan is one of the most prominent Chinese Talent recruit plans that are designed to attract, recruit, and cultivate high-level scientific talent in furtherance of China's scientific development, economic prosperity and national security. These talent programs seek to lure overseas talent and foreign experts to bring their knowledge and experience to China and reward individuals for stealing proprietary information.
According to Lewis's contract, the Chinese Academy of Sciences agreed to employ Lewis as a professor for at least three years. In return, Lewis agreed to maintain an active research program that yielded publications in high quality, peer-reviewed journals, and to provide research training and experience for Chinese Academy of Sciences students.
As a part of the program, Lewis was promised benefits, including a living subsidy of 1 million Yuan (approximately $143,000), a research subsidy of 4 million Yuan (approximately $573,000), and a salary of 600,000 Yuan (approximately $86,000). To receive the benefits, Lewis would have to work full time in China for three consecutive years, for no less than nine months per year, and would have to begin work no later than Aug. 8, 2018.
In March 2018, Lewis submitted a request to WVU for an alternate/parental work assignment, requesting to be released from his teaching duties for the fall 2018 semester in order to serve as the primary caregiver for a child he and his wife were expecting in June 2018. In fact, however, Lewis knew this request was fraudulent. Rather than caring for his newborn child, Lewis planned to work in China during the fall 2018 semester as a part of his agreement with the "1000 Talents Plan." Based on the false justification Lewis offered, WVU granted his request.
In the fall of 2018, Lewis spent all but three weeks of the semester in China while his newborn child remained in the United States. During this period, Lewis received his full salary from WVU pursuant to his alternate/parental work assignment. Lewis's scheme allowed him to fraudulently obtain $20,189 from WVU.
As a part of the plea agreement, Lewis has agreed to pay restitution in the amount of $20,189 in full to WVU. Lewis is no longer employed by WVU, having resigned in August 2019.
Lewis faces up to 10 years incarceration and a fine of up to $250,000. Under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the actual sentence imposed will be based upon the seriousness of the offenses and the prior criminal history, if any, of the defendant.
The Internal Revenue Service and FBI conducted this investigation with cooperation from the WVU. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jarod J. Douglas and Trial Attorney Evan N. Turgeon with the Department of Justice's Counterintelligence and Export Control Section, National Security Division, are prosecuting the case on behalf of the government.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael John Aloi presided.