HKU robotics expert charged with fraud

Top News | Amy Nip and Associated Press 23 Feb 2018

A world-renowned Hong Kong University expert in robotics has been charged with defrauding Michigan State University and a professional organization with false expense claims totaling US$429,000 (HK$3.35 million).

Documents filed at the West Michigan US District Court showed that Xi Ning, a former professor of electrical and computer engineering at MSU, was arrested on February 15 near the Michigan State campus and charged with fraud by wire.

He appeared in federal court on Wednesday and remains in custody.

Xi was the former director of Michigan State's Robotics and Automation Laboratory. He is currently chair professor of robotics and automation at the University of Hong Kong's engineering faculty, and director of the school's Emerging Technologies Institute.

According to a document submitted by the prosecution, the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened in 2013 an investigation into Xi, a Chinese citizen who is a permanent resident of the United States.

"Over time, the investigation produced evidence that Xi had defrauded both MSU and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a non-profit corporation headquartered in New York, of hundreds of thousands of US dollars by submitting false reimbursement claims for travel and related expenses," the document said.

The fraudulent claims totaled US$429,000 and were paid to Xi between 2011 and 2016.

Xi was first employed by MSU in 1997, and he eventually rose to the post of distinguished professor and director of the Robotics and Automation Laboratory.

Starting in January 2011, Xi went on sabbatical leave from MSU to work at an "administrative" post at City University of Hong Kong.

MSU later became aware that Xi had become the founding head of the Department of Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering at City University, which was in violation of the university's policy. Xi resigned from City University and returned to MSU in June 2014.

MSU concluded that he had committed "unacceptable research practice" by assuming a second tenured position, and suspended him without pay for three weeks.

The following year, MSU officials discovered Xi had accepted a second position at HKU as chair professor, again in violation of their policy. Xi resigned from MSU in 2015, according to the FBI.

After parting ways with MSU, Xi continued to submit requests for travel reimbursements to the university, raising alarms on their validity.

A significant proportion of disbursement vouchers for travel expenses appeared to have been fabricated as they were for charges that had already been refunded to Xi's credit cards by various airlines, or were for expenses that had already been reimbursed by IEEE.

Xi chaired several IEEE conferences, including the International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Hong Kong in 2014. He was paid travel expenses, with insufficient documentation, for trips to multiple destinations, including San Francisco and Hawaii.

Xi studied in Beijing before heading to the United States. He and his graduate students have developed advanced robot planning and control methods for nuclear waste clean-up and environmental restoration.

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