A West Boca man is at the center of an international theft caper — but instead of weapons or jewelry, the FBI says he conspired to steal bio-engineered crop seeds and the trade secrets behind them.
Agents say Mo Hailong was among six men who tried to swipe trade secrets for American-made seeds to benefit a Chinese seed company. If the group had pulled it off, investigators say, the theft could have cost U.S. companies tens of millions of dollars and years of research.
Such economic espionage against U.S. industries is a "persistent threat," said a senior FBI counterintelligence official based in Washington, D.C.
"For the past several years we have seen foreign adversaries going after any kind of research and development that the U.S. has embarked on," said Randy Coleman, the FBI's deputy assistant director of counterintelligence.
In this case, the allegations read like a Tom Clancy novel, but with an agricultural twist involving Chinese protagonists – four of whom are employed by a Beijing-based seed company called Kings Nower Seed S & T Co., Ltd. — spending months doing all they can to get their hands on their American competitors' highly prized intellectual property.
In the end, seeds concealed in hundreds of envelopes from U.S. companies were seized at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in luggage bound for China, and at the U.S. border with Canada in Vermont. Agents believed the seeds to have been stolen or improperly obtained.
A grand jury indictment filed in December describes a series of events over more than two years that agents say, taken as a whole, constitute a conspiracy to steal trade secrets.
The indictment names three American agricultural companies as the victims: Monsanto, LG Seeds, and DuPont Pioneer.
The conduct, if proven to have been criminal, is not taken lightly by U.S. authorities. This stark fact seems to have been acknowledged by two of the suspects who were recorded by a listening device placed by federal authorities inside a rental car they used while driving around the Midwest farm belt.
"When the number of stolen goods reaches a certain amount, this becomes IP [intellectual property] violation," one of the men is heard saying, according to court records. "Nowadays the U.S. is very hostile to China on this matter. If this time they opt to...if they max the punishment, then we are done."
Investigators threw a surveillance dragnet around the men, also installing GPS trackers in their rental vehicles.
A cat-and-mouse game ensued, according to court records. Agents said Mo also used "deliberate counter-surveillance" methods, such as "driving slowly on the (I)nterstate for prolonged periods of time followed by short bursts of high speed driving," the complaint said.
"Most significantly, once Mo arrived in Adel, Iowa, he made several U-turns and backed in to parking lots immediately off the main road so he could apparently observe any traffic," the complaint alleges.
The alleged scheme began to unravel on May 2, 2011, court fillings say.
That's when Mo and another man, Wang Lei, showed up unexpectedly at an Iowa farmer's field in the middle of nowhere. There were no signs or markings at all on the land, which was no accident because few people were supposed to know about this particular field or what was growing on it. Mo and Wang, in a rental car, started asking the farmer what had been planted there. Corn, the farmer said.
The very next day, they returned. Mo was found on his knees in the dirt, according to a federal criminal complaint, while Wang waited behind the wheel in the car. Confronted by a field manager, they allegedly sped off quickly. It's not clear if Mo actually managed to take some of the seeds.
Almost two months later, on June 30, 2011, agents from the FBI's Des Moines office were told of the incident when they visited DuPont Pioneer's headquarters for a routine meeting.
Known as the largest hybrid seed developer in the United States, DuPont Pioneer was using this particular land, near Tama, Iowa, to test a "highly anticipated" corn seed product it had been working on. The product was meant to be kept under wraps, lest it fall into a competitors' hands and cause a huge economic loss to the company.
Mo and Wang had good reason to have their eyes on the test field, the criminal complaint alleges. Mo is an executive with a Chinese conglomerate that also owns Kings Nower, while Lei is vice chairman of Kings Nower.
One of the other suspects, Li Shaoming, is named by U.S. authorities as the president of Kings Nower. Li hasn't yet been arrested, but his face adorns a 'Wanted By The FBI' poster.
Agents said they believe that several potential insiders at U.S. companies gave away the locations of test fields to Mo and his alleged co-conspirators. While under surveillance, agents said, Mo and one of the other suspects met with a person whose spouse, at the time, was working at DuPont Pioneer as a corn geneticist engineer.
"The insider employees are suspected of conspiring with Mo to provide the locations of test fields being utilized to grow bio-engineered seed and/or providing the underlying gene sequences for bio-engineered seed developed by the victim companies," the complaint alleges.
Mo was taken into custody on Dec. 11 in South Florida. Born in 1969 in China, he has permanent resident status in the U.S. and lives in a house on Candle Court in West Boca with his wife and two children, court records show. He's owned the Candle Court property since 2009, according to Palm Beach County property records. Also known as Robert Mo, he earned a doctorate in mechanical engineering from Kansas State University in 2002.
The grand jury indictment brought against the men also describes the "overt acts" that constitute the alleged conspiracy.
Among them, allegations that Mo bought over $1,500 worth of DuPont Pioneer corn seed from a seed dealer in Iowa. The seed dealer told agents that he wasn't supposed to sell the seed to Mo because of an agreement with DuPont Pioneer stipulating that seed only be sold to farmers who had signed a growing agreement with the manufacturer. Mo had never signed such a contract, the store owner told agents. Later, he tried to send 250 pounds of corn seed to Hong Kong, but FBI agents interecepted the shipment.
If convicted, each of the suspects faces a maximum of 10 years in prison.
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