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Federal authorities have charged an internationally recognized agriculture expert who worked in Saskatchewan with fraud and breach of trust, alleging he secretly received money from a Chinese university while employed by the Canadian government.

Yantai Gan started working for Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada (AAFC) in 1999, and the Royal Society of Canada recognized his crop sciences research in 2019. Mr. Gan was arrested two years ago, but the RCMP did not publicly announce the criminal case against him until last week, days before the start of his preliminary hearing in Swift Current.

The RCMP said they charged Mr. Gan with breach of trust by a public officer, fraud of more than $5,000 and possession of proceeds from a crime of more than $5,000. While the police statement provided few details, a charging document from earlier this year, as well as an affidavit filed in 2020 related to an application to restrain Mr. Gan’s ability to sell his house in Interior British Columbia, expand on the RCMP’s allegations against the decorated scientist.

In the charging document, the RCMP allege Mr. Gan failed to disclose to AAFC the full extent of his relationship with Gansu Agricultural University (GAU), a school located in the northwestern Chinese city of Lanzhou. The document also says Mr. Gan concealed dealings with Barilla America, part of the Italian-controlled pasta giant. He is also accused of recruiting international scientists for the Chinese university, according to the document.

The RCMP allege these relationships, and the payments Mr. Gan received as a result of them, amount to breach of trust and fraud because he did not reveal them to his employer for approval, a violation of AAFC’s disclosure requirements.

Mr. Gan has not worked for the federal government since November, 2019, according to AAFC.

None of the allegations have been proved in court. Mr. Gan opted for a jury trial and intends to plead not guilty, one of his lawyers said. The trial’s date has not been set.

In 2020, a Saskatchewan judge approved the application to restrain the sale of Mr. Gan’s house. The RCMP argued Mr. Gan bought the house with ill-gotten money, making it the proceeds of crime.

“Dr. Gan is asserting his innocence and looks forward to a prompt resolution of these matters as this has been extremely stressful for him personally and professionally,” Brian Pfefferle, one of Mr. Gan’s lawyers, said in a statement.

The RCMP National Security Enforcement Section started investigating Mr. Gan in 2018, according to the affidavit. At the time, he was working for AAFC’s research and development centre in Swift Current. The Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada had flagged suspicious financial activity, including transfers from a bank in China to his accounts in Canada, the affidavit says. The 37-page document was sworn by RCMP Constable Cody Thompson.

According to the affidavit, Mr. Gan signed a contract to work for GAU for one year, starting June 1, 2012. His job description included coaching, developing talent, publishing in journals and playing host to a crop development seminar. Mr. Gan would be paid a salary equivalent to $130,000 to $150,000 a year, and would be entitled to a “free apartment” or a monthly housing allowance, Constable Thompson’s affidavit says.

The RCMP allege Mr. Gan did not disclose the contract or salary to his employer, AAFC. But the federal agency had approved a year-long work transfer, which allowed the scientist to perform research at the Chinese university as an AAFC employee. Mr. Gan collected his federal salary, as well as a $34,000 living allowance from AAFC, while being paid by the Chinese institution, according to the affidavit.

In 2017, Mr. Gan, using AAFC resources, reached out to more than 20 agricultural scientists from several countries in an effort to build a research team for a project at the Chinese university, Constable Thompson alleges. The draft agreements sent to the recruited scientists included offers of five-year appointments at the school, the affidavit says.

Constable Thompson says in the affidavit that he interviewed a number of Mr. Gan’s superiors in the federal agricultural department and found AAFC was concerned Mr. Gan was “inappropriately exchanging intellectual knowledge through his associations with GAU.”

The RCMP also allege, in the charge sheet and in Constable Thompson’s affidavit, that in 2014 Mr. Gan signed a separate deal with Barilla America. The pasta company paid him $24,127.57 for work related to that contract, which Mr. Gan did not disclose to AAFC, the court documents say.

The affidavit says one of Mr. Gan’s superiors at AAFC believed the money the scientist allegedly received from outside sources “would make it appear he is sharing information, expertise, material, or outputs” without the agency’s knowledge.

On Nov. 19, 2019, according to the affidavit, Mr. Gan told an investigator that he did not know if the contract with the Chinese university was a draft or if he had received any money as a result of it. But when investigators executed a search warrant at Mr. Gan’s home in Swift Current, they found an April, 2013, pay stub from the school, the affidavit says.

Mr. Gan also told investigators he was not the organizer of a conference at GAU in 2018, but rather an invited guest who had been asked to bring colleagues, the affidavit says.

Western governments are increasingly worried China is siphoning proprietary research and technology from other countries by courting international scholars. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in a mandate letter from Dec. 16, instructed Minister of Public Safety Marco Mendicino to promote economic security and combat foreign interference by bolstering federal investigations of “security risks in foreign research and investment partnerships.”

In recent years, U.S. Department of Justice prosecutors have launched several criminal cases against American university researchers with ties to China. In doing so they have aired allegations about fraud, breach of trust, and undeclared income similar to those that characterize the criminal case playing out in Swift Current.

The U.S. cases make it clear that academic research partnerships with China are not illegal. But researchers face penalties if they fail to disclose financial transactions or the extent of their ties to China.

Recently in Canada, a group of Parliamentarians cleared to examine state secrets highlighted what China calls its “Thousand Talents Program.”

“China uses ‘talent programs’ and academic exchanges to exploit Canadian expertise,” reads a 2020 annual report by the national security and intelligence committee of Parliamentarians.

The report says a team of deputy ministers in Ottawa has been working since 2019 to “assess and address security vulnerabilities in the government’s science sector.”

With a report from Stephanie Chambers

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