Charlotte scientist pleads guilty to corporate espionage

Xiwen Huang pleaded guilty Friday to stealing trade secrets
Xiwen Huang pleaded guilty Friday to stealing trade secrets Mecklenburg County Jail

Chinese researcher Xiwen Huang pleaded guilty Friday to one count of stealing trade secrets. But the legal battle over the punishment the former Charlotte resident receives already is underway.

Federal prosecutors say the 55-year-old chemical engineer stole proprietary technology and hundreds of pages of documents over the last decade from his government and civilian employers, including a company in Charlotte. Huang’s goal, according to court documents, was to aid both the Chinese government and his own company, which he started in North Carolina to do business in his Asian homeland.

Huang faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. He will be sentenced at a later date. Imprisonment is all but certain.

However, the defense team of Jake Sussman and Noell Tin have already laid a public groundwork on how they hope to limit the punishment. In documents filed this week by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Huang’s attorneys allege that some of the charges against their client are not true.

For now, prosecutors say the former Charlotte resident “schemed and stole trade secrets” for more than a decade, to assist the Chinese government and a business he started using the technological secrets he amassed. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin Zolot told U.S. Magistrate Judge David Cayer on Friday that Huang preyed on products that carried research and development costs of between $65 million and $150 million. The FBI says Huang’s actions put the U.S. economy and domestic jobs at risk.

Sussman this week described Huang as a “loyal and productive American citizen for many years” and said government depictions of him as a technological spy are overblown. He and Tin have challenged seven separate statements in the prosecution’s case against Huang, including the assertion that Huang stole American technology to benefit his own company that was doing business in China. If a judge agrees, it could narrow the conspiracy for which Haung will be held accountable.

Huang took a job with a Charlotte research firm specializing in power plan technology in 2012. He was fired in 2014 after a company investigation discovered Huang’s thefts, documents say. He was arrested last May.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS