A judge sentenced a former Virginia Tech scientist convicted of grant fraud to probation Friday, finding no need for prison given that the man served a combined two years in jail and on home confinement, didn’t profit personally, lost his career and reputation and is unlikely to reoffend.
“His life is effectively ruined,” said U.S. District Court Judge Michael Urbanski as he sentenced Yiheng “Percival” Zhang.
The 47-year-old Blacksburg man fell from bioscience acclaim after being charged with defrauding the National Science Foundation, a federal agency that pours billions into basic research at U.S. colleges and universities, according to court filings.
Zhang, who was born in China and became a U.S. citizen, had been a celebrated faculty member in biological systems engineering, including for potentially lucrative work on food-related projects.
The government accused Zhang, founder and chief scientific officer of Cell-Free Bioinnovations Inc. of Blacksburg, and Zhiguang Zhu, its chief technology officer and principal investigator, of scheming from January 2014 to May 2016 to obtain grant funds while violating program rules.
Zhang, who left the school in 2017, was convicted this year of conspiracy to defraud the government, making false statements on grant applications and obstruction of justice. He was acquitted of 19 other counts.
Zhu has not been prosecuted and is described as a fugitive.
Prosecutor Randy Ramseyer said Zhang was convicted of submitting grant applications that sought money for already completed work while intending to use the money for unapproved or undisclosed research. He later fabricated timesheets to impede investigators.
In the federal grant world, “we rely on people to be honest,” Ramseyer said.
Federal policy calls for prison for people who violate grant-making laws, as a strong deterrent to others, said Ramseyer, who had requested a prison term of five years and a $100,000 fine.
The falsified grant applications yielded no project funding, nor did Zhang ever seek personal enrichment, according to his lawyer, Peter Zeidenberg, who said his client’s motive in breaking the law was to do more research.
Zhang, an award-winning, patent-holding, tenured scholar, was seeking to alleviate world hunger, the attorney said. Now he’s barred from federal programs.
Zeidenberg argued against prison, saying the consequences Zhang suffered send a sufficient warning to others; he’s heard that scientists aware of Zhang’s plight are already shunning the grant programs Zhang applied to.
“If you screw up in any fashion, it’s lights out,” Zeidenberg said.
Among other fallout from the case, Zhang is hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt for legal costs, according to Urbanski.
Zhang will be subject to probation, with details of his finances and lifestyle open to examination by a federal probation officer for two years, the ruling said. The judge declared, however, that an electronic monitoring device worn by Zhang since early 2018 can be removed.
The judge said another reason not to send Zhang to prison is the vital role he plays caring for his special needs 8-year-old daughter, Michelle, who was injured when her heart stopped for 17 minutes at age 2.
Urbanski also acknowledged a letter in which Zhang explained that he read the book “The Purpose-Driven Life” while in jail, and that it set in motion a religious conversation.
He said in the letter that he has traded personal ambition and self-conceit for humility.
“My new life purpose is to do everything for God,” read the letter, which was filed in court.
He changed his middle name to Job, the letter said.