BLACKSBURG, Va. (WDBJ7) A federal judge ruled Monday a former Virginia Tech professor facing charges of defrauding the federal government, will remain in jail until the outcome of his trial.
Yiheng Zhang was arrested Wednesday and charged with counts of committing wire fraud, making false statements, and criminal false claims following an investigation conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI).
In a criminal complaint filed in US District Court, FBI agents accuse Zhang of applying for grants through the National Science Foundation to fund work that had already been completed in another country.
A condition of the NSF grant award indicated “a minimum of 30% of the funding, excluding any purchased or leased equipment, materials, and supplies, must be allocated to the research institution.” In a criminal complaint, FBI agents write Virginia Tech has only received a portion of the more than $1 million Zhang was awarded through the federal grant program.
“All we have so far are allegations, nothing more,” Zhang’s defense attorney Scott Austin said. “We haven’t even seen the facts underlying the allegations, just the allegations.”
Zhang went before a federal judge Monday for his detention and bond hearing.
Both sides spent two and a half hours presenting their opposing views over whether Zhang is a flight risk.
The government argued Zhang was a flight risk because an interpreter had overheard him telling his wife that if he had to go to jail he would go to China and never come back.
His wife testified he had only said that out of frustration, however she did say Zhang did plan to go to China for five years to conduct research in October. But she insisted he had planned to come back several times a year.
Austin argued there is a difference between “desire vs. ability”.
Austin told the judge there was no way Zhang would permanently leave his two American born children behind and would not bring them to China because his youngest child has special needs.
“They [his children] don’t have Chinese passports, they are not Chinese citizens, they would have no readily available way to go over there,” Austin said.
Additionally, Austin said in China, children with special needs are not permitted to attend school.
Austin also said Zhang was willing to post his house as a condition to get a bond.
However, the prosecution said they were more convinced than before the hearing that Zhang is a flight risk. They emphasized if Zhang flees to China, there is no way to get him back because there is no legal process to get him back from China.
“The risks are enormous,” the prosecutor said. “If he goes to China, the case will be over.”
Ultimately, the judge sided with the government to detain Zhang until the outcome of his trial.
“We had suggested perhaps electronic monitoring would be appropriate but the judge didn’t believe that was sufficient to secure his appearance at the trial,” Austin said.
He believes it could be up to two years before Zhang’s trial.
“This is a complicated case, it will involve a lot of documents, scientific testimony, and evidence. It is anticipated, though I don’t know for sure, the discovery process will be extensive.”
Austin said he hopes people to reserve judgment.
“Dr. Zhang is a good professor and a good man, he’ll have his day in court.”
Zhang had been employed at Virginia Tech since 2005 and but resigned as professor in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering amid the investigation.
Zhang still has the right to appeal the judge’s ruling.