DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- One of the six men from China charged with conspiring to steal patented seed corn from two of the nation's leading seed developers has appeared in federal court in Des Moines and was ordered held in custody while he awaits trial.
Mo Hailong, also known as Robert Mo, appeared Thursday before Magistrate Judge Ross Walters and entered a plea of not guilty to one count of conspiracy to steal trade secrets.
Walters set a trial date for March 31 but lawyers often file motions seeking delays.
A lawyer based in Beijing filed documents requesting permission to represent Mo.
Xiang Wang, a member of the state bar of New York and of the Supreme Court of the state of New York, needed court approval to practice in Iowa since he's not a member of the state bar. He was approved by the court to represent Mo, who was arrested in Miami, where he lived, on Dec. 11. Xiang did not immediately respond Friday to an email seeking comment on behalf of his client.
Mo is one of six men to be charged by federal prosecutors in Des Moines after an FBI investigation determined seed corn was being taken from test fields containing highly valuable seed owned by Pioneer Hybrid and Monsanto.
Prosecutors allege in court documents that the men were hiding the seed in a storage unit near Des Moines and eventually taking it to farm near Monee, Ill., which the FBI said had been purchased by Kings Nower Seed in March 2012. Kings Nower is a subsidiary of Beijing-based conglomerate DBN Group.
Court documents filed Jan. 8 also show the government is attempting to seize the 40-acre Illinois farm that appears to have served as a Midwest base of operation for the Chinese men. It is about 40 miles south of Chicago.
The other men charged include Li Shaoming, CEO of Kings Nower Seed, and employees Wang Lei, Ye Jian, and Lin Young. They all live in China, which shares no extradition agreement with the U.S.
Wang Hongwei, a dual citizen of China and Canada, who lives in Canada, also is charged, said U.S. Attorney Nicholas Klinefeldt, the Des Moines-based federal prosecutor for central Iowa. The U.S. and Canada have an extradition agreement and all avenues are being considered to find and arrest Wang, Klinefeldt said.
The charges filed in December were the culmination of a 2½ year investigation by the FBI that began in the summer of 2011 after Mo, Wang, and Li were found in a Bondurant field of a farmer growing test seed for Monsanto.
Seed developers like Monsanto and Pioneer spend millions of dollars and years to develop new varieties and carefully protect them against theft to maintain a competitive advantage.
Foreign companies steal trade secrets, allowing them "to undercut U.S. companies on a global basis as they can oftentimes sell the products they have stolen on a cheaper basis than U.S. corporations," said Tom Metz, special agent in charge of the FBI's Omaha Division, at a press conference in December when charges were initially filed in the case.
The loss to a U.S. seed corn manufacturer of a patented seed line is a minimum of $30 million to $40 million and from five to eight years of research time, Klinefeldt said.