(CN) – The 6th Circuit rejected the appeal on Wednesday of a former engineering professor convicted of sharing military defense secrets with graduate students from China and Iran, and for bringing project data to China.
John Reece Roth, a plasma technology expert who taught at University of Tennessee, argued that his ignorance of the law and lack of intent should have exonerated him. The former professor was convicted under the Arms Export Control Act – reportedly the first conviction of its kind.
In 2004, Roth was a minority owner in Atmospheric Glow Technologies, which had just won a U.S. Air Force contract to develop plasma actuators that could control unmanned, military aircraft.
Criminal charges arose after Roth allowed two of his foreign graduate research assistants – an Iranian national and a Chinese national – to work on the project.
In May 2006 Roth further violated defense law by taking sensitive project documents on a university lecture tour of China. Roth was specifically charged with bringing a recently e-mailed agency proposal stored on his laptop – though the former professor says he did not even open that proposal until his return to the States.
A Tennessee federal jury convicted Roth, then 71, in July 2009 of conspiracy to export defense articles, 15 counts of exporting defense articles, and one count of wire fraud.
Roth argued that he and his students were working on early-stage research that was still publicly available, although military in nature. The work had not even progressed to commercial aircrafts, let alone military planes, he claimed.
The Cincinnati-based federal appeals court rejected Roth’s arguments and upheld the 4-year sentence, which Roth reportedly has yet to start serving as he has remained free during the appeals process.
Writing for the court’s three-judge panel, Judge Boyce Martin says it does not matter what stage of the project Roth was in, “the federal regulations extend export controls to all stages of defense projects that are covered by the act, not just the final stages when military devices are directly involved.”
As for the professor’s argument that he did not willfully take sensitive information to China, Martin added that Roth knew the proposal was sensitive whether he opened it or not and should have left the information at home.