ST. LOUIS — A former Monsanto employee was arrested Sunday on federal charges claiming he stole trade secrets from the company.
The arrest comes more than two years after Haitao Xiang, now 42, was detained at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport while boarding a flight to Shanghai, China, with proprietary Monsanto software, charging documents say. It wasn’t immediately clear Monday why Xiang was not been charged before now.
At Xiang’s first appearance in court Monday morning in jeans, a flannel shirt and running shoes, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Bodenhausen told him that he’d been charged with theft of trade secrets and conspiring to steal trade secrets.
He also said that prosecutors wanted Xiang held in jail until his trial, saying he is a flight risk.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Drake told Bodenhausen that he was going to take the case in front of a grand jury on Wednesday.
An affidavit filed in court Friday by FBI Special Agent Janet Depke says Xiang worked for both Monsanto and an affiliate, The Climate Corporation, from 2008 to 2017. At Monsanto, his title was senior research applications engineer and he was listed as an advanced imaging scientist at TCC, Depke wrote. He worked on an online platform known as the Nutrient Optimizer, which used a proprietary algorithm to determine what nutrients farmers should use on their fields, Depke wrote.
From 2015 to 2017, Xiang was also seeking a position in China, in part by saying he wanted to develop a program similar to the Nutrient Optimizer, Depke wrote. He was told he got a managerial position in August 2016 with the Chinese Academy of Science’s Nanjing Institute of Soil Science, and told Monsanto and TCC in May 2017 that he would resign effective June 9, Depke wrote. In an interview with company officials that day, Xiang said he kept no company documents, data or storage devices, but did say he’d taken his Monsanto laptop to China in 2016, during which he visited the Chinese Academy of Science, Depke wrote. Company officials confronted Xiang with phrases in Google searches he’d made on a Monsanto computer including “company information to the third party” and “as evidence to accuse me,” Depke wrote.
Officials then called the FBI, which contacted Customs and Border Protection agents. After they detained Xiang at the airport, FBI agents found six files containing Monsanto or TCC data on a storage device connected to his laptop, including The Nutrient Optimizer, Depke wrote.
Xiang could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted, Drake said.
Xiang’s lawyer, Eric Selig, said Monday that Xiang is a devoted husband and father. His wife and daughter live in the St. Louis area while he splits his time between China and the U.S., where he is a legal resident, Selig said.
“The facts of the case are much more complicated than what the complaint would say,” Selig said, adding that he “anticipates the opportunity to investigate and prove his innocence.”
Monsanto was acquired by Bayer last year.