(The Center Square) – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law Monday two bills that toughen penalties for stealing trade secrets and impose greater disclosure requirements on sources of foreign grants for university, medical and high-tech researchers.
The bills were a response to DeSantis’ pre-legislative session call for lawmakers to adopt legislation to thwart attempts to infiltrate agencies and universities by agents from seven “foreign adversary” nations: China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria.
The most direct target of the bills, however, is China, especially after revelations the past two years that the Confucian Institute, oft-cited as a source of Chinese “plants” to harvest research data, was grant-funding programs in several Florida schools, including Miami-Dade College.
Other incidents involve a former University of Florida professor charged with fraud in February for allegedly accepting a federal research grant while concealing Chinese sources of financing, and Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center administrators being ousted for alleged failure to disclose receiving money from Chinese sources to recruit U.S. researchers to work in China.
"There is no single entity that exercises a more pervasive, nefarious influence across a wide range of American industries and institutions than the Communist Party of China," DeSantis said Monday in Miami as he signed the Combating Corporate Espionage in Florida Act into law.
“All we are doing today,” he said, “is saying enough is enough. We have to start fighting back. Florida is doing that.”
The Combating Corporate Espionage in Florida Act, House Bill 1523, was sponsored by Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Lithia. It amends trade-secret theft definitions and crimes in state law.
Under the law, “trafficking in trade secrets” is a second-degree felony. If an investigation reveals the crime was committed to benefit a foreign government, it would be a first-degree felony.
The new law allows private individuals and corporations to seek compensation in state courts for stolen trade secrets and updates the state’s obsolete codes to accommodate advances in technology, Beltran said in HB 1523’s committee hearings.
The second bill DeSantis signed Monday requires state universities and colleges to disclose grants and donations of more than $50,000 from foreign governments and implements a slate of review requirements.
House Bill 7017, sponsored Rep. Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach, requires complete disclosure of grant sources and prohibits some agreements between state agencies and universities with the seven “countries of concern:” China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria.
The new law mandates universities with research budgets over $10 million to perform more extensive screening of foreign applicants for research positions and apply more scrutiny on foreign travel and activities by grant recipients.
The law also prohibits donations “conditioned on a program to promote the language and culture of any of seven countries of concern” and would protect whistleblowers.
As he did during a Friday news conference and in various media appearances over the weekend, DeSantis accused China of trying to "cover up the origins of COVID-19,” arguing it’s “almost impossible” it developed naturally.
"It's pretty clear that this was a virus that almost assuredly leaked out of this lab in Wuhan," DeSantis said. "This is a lab where these scientists were working closely with the Communist Party of China, as well as the Chinese military."
China never asked other nations for assistance and failed to give other nations a warning about the emerging pandemic, DeSantis said.
"They tried to cover it up, and basically the world has had to endure over a year and a half of a lot of bad stuff as a result of this," he said. "So, they covered it up and they need to be held accountable for this."