A University of Florida research employee and students have been implicated in an illegal, multi-million dollar scheme investigated by the Justice Department to fraudulently buy thousands of biochemical samples of dangerous drugs and toxins that were delivered to a campus laboratory then illicitly shipped to China over seven years, according to federal court records.

Among the students tied to the scheme was the president of UF’s Chinese Students and Scholars Association. The group openly protested a Florida law signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis last year that limits universities from recruiting students and faculty from China — and bans employing such students from working in academic labs without special permission.

That student, Nongnong “Leticia” Zheng, confirmed Friday in an interview that a federal prosecutor notified her last year in writing she was the target of a grand jury investigation, and the Justice Department was preparing to seek criminal charges against her. She said she has been assigned a federal public defender, Ryan Maguire of Tampa. She said government agents have threatened to imprison or deport her.

It wasn’t otherwise clear whether the UF research employee or other students — identified in court records as co-conspirators — been charged or arrested yet. The UF employee worked in the stockroom of one of the university’s research labs, prosecutors said.

The materials smuggled to China included what the government described as purified, non-contagious proteins of the cholera toxin and pertussis toxin, which causes whooping cough. Cholera is a generally non-fatal intestinal infection that can cause severe dehydration. Whooping cough is a highly contagious bacterial infection that can lead to violent coughing, vomiting and even respiratory distress — but is preventable with a vaccine.

Other materials smuggled to China in the scheme included small amounts of highly purified drugs – known as analytical samples — of fentanyl, morphine, MDMA, cocaine, ketamine, codeine, methamphetamine, amphetamine, acetylmorphine and methadone, court records showed. Such small samples would generally be used for calibrating scientific or medical devices.

The substances can’t legally be exported to China.

Prosecutors described one student involved as a Chinese citizen majoring in marketing in the business college last year, who agreed to change her UF email signature to falsely represent that she was a biomedical engineering student to purchase items without raising suspicions, court records showed. One line across hundreds of pages of court documents in the case cited an excerpt of an email that her first name was “Leticia.”

Zheng, a senior marketing major in the business school, is president of the Chinese students and scholars group, which describes itself as officially approved by the Chinese embassy. Zheng was enrolled as recently as the spring semester that just ended, university records showed. Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications, identified “Leticia” as Zheng using biographical clues in university records shared by none of the other 58,441 UF students enrolled last semester.

Zheng, who said she lived most of her life in China, said in a tearful interview Friday at her apartment complex she was deceived and victimized by the scheme’s organizers, who she said solicited help finding paid interns from the Chinese student organization. Foreign students on educational visas are limited in how or whether they can work for pay.

“This case seems to be really big,” she said. “What I was doing was, like, just a little work, and I didn’t get paid that much.”

Zheng said in hindsight, she noticed red flags such as a lack of paperwork or consistent payments for the administrative work she did. She said she wasn’t familiar with the substances she was directed to order. The man described as the scheme’s ringleader — who has pleaded guilty in the case — reassured her, and she didn’t realize she was in trouble until the Justice Department contacted her, she said.

Zheng said she hopes to be allowed to finish her degree and said she doesn’t understand how the university didn’t have policies in place to protect her.

“I do need help, honestly,” she said, adding: “I would like to see if there’s anything that can help me not get charged and get out of this whole mess.”

Earlier this year, Zheng’s organization issued a statement calling Florida’s new law restricting Chinese students in university labs as “nationality-based discrimination” and said it violates principles of academic freedom and openness and impedes international exchanges.

The scheme’s organizers also paid UF students other than Zheng to allow use of their UF email addresses to order the substances, prosecutors said. Organizers paid the UF research employee with Home Depot gift cards worth hundreds of dollars and paid for trips and loans, court records showed. Prosecutors said organizers also used the email addresses of two UF researchers who had already left the university by 2015. They were not described as co-conspirators.

The university said in a statement that it has been cooperating with the Justice Department for weeks but declined to answer directly whether anyone has been fired or kicked out of UF.

“We will have more details to share regarding UF’s administrative actions as the DOJ’s criminal case unfolds,” spokesman Steve Orlando said. “Employees who break the law will be separated from employment, and students who break the law will face suspension.”

The scheme ran from July 2016 to May 2023, the government said. Former Republican Sen. Ben Sasse — a leading China hawk on Capitol Hill who once described the threat from Beijing as the “defining national-security challenge of our age” — took over as the university’s president in February 2022.

The plot was sure to supercharge the raging policy debate over countering China’s ascension as a global power and curtailing its influence. Florida has already banned TikTok from universities and colleges, and prohibited citizens of China and some other countries from owning homes or purchasing property in large swaths of the state.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee and said to be under consideration by former President Donald Trump to be his running mate, has warned Florida lawmakers about what he called a foreign interference effort by China targeting universities.

The Chinese Students and Scholars Association’s faculty adviser, Eric Jing Du, a professor in the UF Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering, said Friday in an interview that he was unaware of the criminal investigation and Zheng never told him she was ordering biomedical supplies.

Du — who condemned the plot described in court records — said the two have worked together in the two years he has been the group’s adviser. He separately hired her briefly in 2022 to produce some images for an academic proposal, he said.

“It’s like some UF students are trying to make a profit on this without knowing the potential consequences,” he said. Du said he worried investigations like this could lead to further crackdowns against international students. The new Florida law targets students from so-called countries of concern: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria.

“This is a very complicated time,” Du said. “I do know the contributions and hard work of the students from the countries of concern, the vast majority of them are doing the right thing and contributing to UF and Florida. I just hope the decision makers, the leadership, the Legislature won’t amplify the impact of this.”

The man who prosecutors identified as the scheme’s ringleader, Pen “Ben” Yu, 51, of Gibsonton, Florida, near Tampa, has already pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and faces up to 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine when he is sentenced on Aug. 2.

Yu provided Zheng, the UF student, with a credit card to place dozens of fraudulent orders last year, the Justice Department said. At Yu’s direction, she wrote to the biomedical company that she was “working in collaboration with other researchers” in biotechnology and requested “a good price since we will be purchasing these items routinely,” court records showed.

After the biomedical orders arrived at UF, the research employee would bring them or otherwise provide them to Yu, who shipped them to China, prosecutors said. The UF researcher in charge of the lab – which included the stockroom where the supplies were delivered – was not described as a co-conspirator in legal filings.

“Ben, I believe I have 35 or 36 boxes for you today,” the UF research employee wrote in 2016.

Yu paid for the employee’s gasoline, $10 for every hour he drove to meet him. “I will pump the gas for you at the place where we meet,” he told the research employee, prosecutors said. Yu disguised the shipments to China as legal “diluting agents,” court records showed.

“Faking an affiliation with an academic research lab to obtain controlled biochemical materials, and then sending those materials to China, is not only wrong but illegal,” said Matthew S. Axelrod, the assistant secretary for export enforcement in the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security. He said the criminal investigation should put other universities on alert.

Axelrod called it “yet another fact pattern for universities to beware of — the misuse of academic institutions by outsiders who seek to obscure the actual customer of controlled items.”

It wasn’t clear who Yu was working for in China. In intercepted messages, the government said he referred to his superior only as his boss. Yu and his defense lawyer, Robert Earl Zlatkin of Orlando, did not immediately return a phone message.

A sales executive for Massachusetts-based Sigma-Aldrich Inc., which sold the samples, also has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Gregory Muñoz, 45, of Minneola, Florida, west of Orlando, was set to be sentenced July 23. Muñoz sold products from the company to several universities in Florida, including UF, court records said.

Yu emailed Muñoz in 2020 and said his employer needed 10 boxes of cholera toxin, which he acknowledged was a substance heavily regulated by the U.S. government.

“This is the cholera toxin,” Muñoz replied. “Remember, we had issues in the past and they require a lot of documentation signed by the university.”

Muñoz discovered in December 2022 that his employer was investigating him and warned Yu, who continued to place hundreds of new orders to ship to China in 2023, court records said. “Wow, I am really screwed now,” Muñoz wrote. “Anti-bribery, anti-kickback.”

Last year, in February, Yu emailed Muñoz and asked, “Do you still need Leticia to send you this order?” Muñoz and his lawyer, Fritz J. Scheller of Orlando, also did not immediately return a phone message to Fresh Take Florida.

A third person, Jonathan Rok Thyng, 47, who lived at the same address as Yu in Gibsonton, agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit a federal crime and faces up to 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Prosecutors said Thyng ordered some of the biomedical substances and shipped some of the packages to China. He was expected to formally enter his plea June 18.

Thyng and his lawyer, Bjorn Erik Brunvand of Clearwater, also did not immediately return a phone message left by Fresh Take Florida.

Prosecutors said U.S. Customs and Border Protection seized a shipment in April 2023 that Thyng sent from Tampa to China containing biomedical items ordered by the UF marketing student and others.

The Justice Department said orders placed through UF qualified for significant discounts — prosecutors said the scheme’s organizers paid $4.9 million for $13.7 million worth of biomedical supplies — and included free items and free overnight shipping.

Prosecutors said in court records they would recommend leniency for Yu, Muñoz and Thyng because they promised to cooperate with investigators and accepted responsibility for their crimes. Prosecutors said all are American citizens. The Justice Department asked the judge to order Yu and Muñoz each to forfeit $100,000, which it said was how much Yu and Muñoz had earned over the years.

The scheme unraveled when the company — known as MilliporeSigma, a subsidiary of Merck KGaA of Darmstadt, Germany — discovered the ruse involving UF and reported its involvement to the U.S. government. Under new Justice Department rules, such companies that self-report export violations and cooperate can escape prosecution.

The company said in a statement Friday that it fired Muñoz and cooperated with investigators to avoid prosecution. This was the first time those rules were applied, the government said.

“Because of MilliporeSigma’s timely disclosure and exceptional cooperation, a rogue company insider and his accomplice pled guilty to fraudulently diverting millions of dollars’ worth of biochemicals to China, and the company will not be prosecuted,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco in Washington.

“As national security and corporate crime increasingly intersect, companies that step up and own up under the department’s voluntary self-disclosure programs can help themselves and our nation,” she said.

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