FILE - Alan List Moffitt

Former Moffitt CEO Alan List

Americans understood in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that counter-terrorism efforts would require a “whole-of-government and whole-of-society” response at the federal, state and local levels.

To combat “economic espionage, theft of trade secrets and grant fraud” at American universities and research institutions orchestrated primarily by China, “we need the same approach, the same fever, the same fight,” FBI Tampa Office Special Agent In Charge Michael McPherson said.

Speaking on Monday before the House Select Committee on the Integrity of Research Institutions, McPherson said a concerted effort by the Chinese government to steal and patent “cutting-edge technologies” across a wide range of sectors costs Americans “$225 to $600 billion annually.”

“Beijing seeks to acquire our economic power,” he said. “This is a threat to our economic security and, by virtue of that, our national security.”

The select committee was convened in January by House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, after an investigation revealed four researchers at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute did not disclose on federal grant applications that they also were being paid by a Chinese talent requirement program.

The revelations forced the resignations of Moffitt CEO Alan List, Director Timothy Sellers and the four researchers for violating conflict-of-interest guidelines by involvement with China’s “Thousand Talents” program.

Last week, Moffitt, a research nonprofit created by the Legislature in 1981 at the University of South Florida in Tampa, returned to the state $1.1 million in budgeted salaries and benefits for the six resigned employees.

Committee members grilled Moffitt Executive Vice President and General Counsel David de La Parte about how the center vetted now-resigned Dr. Howard McLeod, of Moffitt’s cancer epidemiology department, and Yijing He, a “Ph.D student” at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.

He was hired to work with McLeod in 2014, but did so entirely from China after attending an employee orientation at Moffitt, earning $491,358 over that span before resigning in December.

Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Sebring, an emergency-medicine physician, noted He gave a fake U.S. address and that the center appeared to rely on a chain of supervision that, in essence, wasn’t being supervised.

“What sort of oversight is in place to vet a person from being employed at Moffitt who may not even exist?” Pigman asked.

“One of the things we’ve learned in all of this is there were active efforts to not reveal the true background and identities of some of these folks,” de La Parte said. “There are now protections against that type of scenario, and we have taken corrective actions.” 

“When you found out what you did about these employees, did you not feel an obligation to those who provided funding to notify them?” asked Rep. Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland.

De La Parte said Moffitt released information about the undisclosed relationships with “Thousand Talents” as quickly as it was uncovered.

“We did not get all the facts dropped on us in one day,” he said, adding red flags initiated an “informal investigation that became a formal investigation,” which resulted in the terminations and could spur civil lawsuits.

In addition to McPherson and de La Parte’s discussions, the committee heard a presentation by officials from the University of Florida (UF), where four employees resigned in January for not disclosing involvement with foreign talent programs.

UF Chief Compliance Officer Terra DuBois said her office requires documentation of any “outside activities” and vets disclosures through an international risk assessment process, five “risk-indicator questions,” and a 10-category risk matrix with review by an advisory group, a vice president’s office and the university’s Provost office.