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Government uses terrorism laws to investigate seed thefts

February 4, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Lawyers for two employees of a Chinese biotechnology company accused of stealing patented seed corn from companies in the United States are fighting the government’s use of laws established to fight terrorism and espionage to gather evidence against them.

In building the case against Mo Hailong, his sister Mo Yun, and five others, FBI agents used the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to secretly place GPS monitors and audio recording devices in rental cars, tap cellphones, and place cameras on utility poles, court documents say. Agents also swept up thousands of documents through electronic surveillance that include pictures, emails and instant messages.

Mo Hailong’s attorney, Mark Weinhardt, filed a motion Wednesday asking a judge to force the government to disclose covert surveillance techniques used against him that resulted in evidence to be used at trial, and to identify that evidence.

“The government has the requested information readily available, but refuses to provide it,” Weinhardt wrote.

The seven employees of Beijing-based DBN Group are charged in federal court with conspiracy to steal trade secrets. They are accused of taking patented seed corn from fields in Iowa and Illinois and planned to ship it to China to try to reproduce its traits. The government says the intellectual property is worth an estimated $500 million.

Mo Hailong, a naturalized U.S. citizen living in Florida before his arrest, is accused of traveling to the Midwest to work with other employees of the company to take corn seed. He was arrested in December 2013.

Mo Yun is accused of helping to coordinate the conspiracy from Beijing. She was arrested in July 2014 at Los Angeles International Airport while waiting for a return flight to China. She had come to the U.S. for a Disneyland vacation with her two children.

She is married to DNB Group chairman Shao Genhou, whose net worth is estimated at $1.4 billion. Shao has not been implicated in the case.

Mo Yun and her brother have pleaded not guilty and are free on bond, though Mo Hailong is under strict security and Mo Yun must wear a GPS monitor. They are scheduled to be tried together on Sept. 14. Authorities believe the five others indicted may have returned to China, which shares no extradition agreement with the U.S.

Mo Yun’s attorney Terry Bird did not return messages seeking comment.

The FISA laws at issue were developed in the 1980s but expanded after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and give the government broad authority to conduct electronic surveillance, perform “sneak and peak” searches under certain circumstances and obtain detailed call records from phone companies.

The National Security Agency also may listen in to international telephone calls under executive orders signed by President Ronald Reagan and amended by President George W. Bush.

While the government frequently uses FISA to investigate cases of suspected spying and terrorism, the practice of using information gathered through these means for other types of criminal investigations is legally murky and increasingly the subject of court challenges.

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