A businessman from China caught rummaging through a corn field in Iowa has been sentenced to three years in prison for stealing trade secrets from U.S. seed corn companies. Mo Hailong, 46, became the subject of an investigation by state and federal authorities in 2011, after DuPont Pioneer security guards found him and other Chinese men digging in a corn field where test plots of new seed corn varieties were growing in central Iowa. Mo was arrested in 2013, but five other men with whom he was working fled the U.S. before they could be arrested. Prosecutors said Mo traveled the Midwest working for Kings Nower Seed, a subsidiary of Chinese conglomerate Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group Co., to take corn seed and ship it to China so scientists could attempt to reproduce its genetic traits.
Mo, who was the only person prosecuted for the conspiracy, was sentenced Wednesday. Mo was born in China but settled in the United States in 1989, and he later became a naturalized citizen living in Florida with his wife and two children. He pleaded guilty in January. In the plea agreement, Mo admitted to conspiring to steal trade secrets from DuPont Pioneer and Monsanto. He asked for probation and community service. Prosecutors sought a five-year sentence. "Theft of trade secrets is a serious federal crime, as it harms victim companies that have invested millions of dollars and years of work toward the development of propriety technology," U.S. Attorney Kevin VanderSchel said in a statement. The Des Moines Register reported that during the sentencing hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie Rose said prison time was necessary to send a message to Chinese companies that such crimes aren't tolerated. Rose acknowledged that three years was a sufficient punishment that took into consideration Mo's recent cancer treatments. Mo's attorney, Mark Weinhardt, said Thursday that his client is remorseful and focused on putting it all behind him. "His first concern is for his family, and his second is to strive to remain free of the rare and aggressive cancer for which he was treated last year. Other things pale in significance for him," Weinhardt said.