An adjunct UCLA professor of electrical engineering faces 219 years in federal prison for conspiring to export semiconductor chips with military applications to China.
According to a statement released last week from the Department of Justice, Yi-Chi Shih, 64, obtained access to a U.S. company’s computer system that includes commercial and military applications for the Air Force, Navy and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The company produces semiconductor chips known as monolithic microwave integrated circuits, or MMICs, that are used in missiles, fighter jets, electronic warfare and radar applications.
“This defendant schemed to export to China semiconductors with military and civilian uses, then he lied about it to federal authorities and failed to report income generated by the scheme on his tax returns,” said U.S. Atty. Nicola Hanna. “My office will enforce laws that protect our nation’s intellectual property from being used to benefit foreign adversaries who may compromise our national security.”
To obtain access, Shih’s co-defendant, Kiet Ahn Mai, 65, of Pasadena posed as a customer trying to get custom-designed MMICs for use in the U.S., concealing the pair’s intent to transfer the products to China, court records show. Shih was then able to access the company’s computer systems via its web portal.
The semiconductor chips were shipped to a Chinese firm run by Shih — Chengdu GaStone Technology Co. — that was building an MMIC manufacturing facility in Chengdu.
In 2014, the company was placed on the Commerce Department’s Entity List, which includes foreign businesses and people who are subject to specific license requirements for the export, reexport and transfer of specific items. According to court documents, Chengdu GaStone Technology was placed on the list “due to its involvement in activities contrary to the national security and foreign policy interest of the United States — specifically, that it had been involved in the illicit procurement of commodities and items for unauthorized military end use in China.”
“These high-performance MMICs provide the data needed for enhanced target acquisition and discrimination (i.e. radars stationed on the ground, on aircraft, or in the homing system of a missile), high-speed and secure communications involving large amounts of data, or to jam or spoof enemy radars and/or communications,” said Michael Elleman, director of the nonproliferation and nuclear policy program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Americas division.
Ellemen said that MMICs can provide detailed radar images to distinguish a missile warhead from nearby decoys or clutter, preventing the wasteful firing of an interceptor missile on nonthreatening targets. They are also used for secure communications.
According to the Justice Department, Shih used a Hollywood Hills-based company he controlled — Pullman Lane Productions — to funnel funds from Chinese entities to finance the manufacturing of MMICs by Chengdu GaStone Technology. Shih’s company received funding from a Beijing-based firm that was placed on the Entity List the same day as Chengdu GaStone Technology.
Shih was found guilty June 26 of conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The federal law makes certain unauthorized exports illegal. He also was found guilty of mail fraud, wire fraud, subscribing to a false tax return, making false statements to a government agency and conspiracy to gain unauthorized access to a protected computer to obtain information.
He and Mai were indicted in January 2018. Mai faces a maximum sentence of 10 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to smuggling.
According to Shih’s LinkedIn profile, he has been an adjunct professor at UCLA since 1994. UCLA’s Electrical and Engineering School identified him under its list of physical and wave electronic adjunct faculty in its 2016-2017 annual report. According to UCLA, however, Shih did not teach a course during that academic year. He last taught a course at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science during the winter quarter of 2011.
“As an adjunct, he was a part-time lecturer who was a visitor to campus and who was only paid for the occasional courses he taught,” said UCLA spokesperson Tod M. Tamberg. “Shih was convicted of crimes unrelated to his association with UCLA.”