Sci­en­tist fac­ing child porn charge

Can­cer re­searcher re­signed from MD An­der­son in April

Houston Chronicle - - CITY | STATE - By Todd Ack­er­man and Brian Rogers STAFF WRIT­ERS

A for­mer MD An­der­son Can­cer Cen­ter sci­en­tist has been ar­rested on al­le­ga­tions that he pos­sessed child pornog­ra­phy on a com­puter hard drive, a charge he and his at­tor­ney em­phat­i­cally de­nied Fri­day.

Keping Xie, a re­searcher in pan­cre­atic can­cer, re­signed from MD An­der­son in April, some three months af­ter Univer­sity of Texas at Hous­ton po­lice launched their in­ves­ti­ga­tion. He was ar­rested Aug. 20, ac­cord­ing to Har­ris County court records.

“I ex­pect him to be cleared of all the al­le­ga­tions,” said Nathan Mays, Xie’s at­tor­ney. “Once the ev­i­dence has been suf­fi­ciently ex­am­ined, it will show that Dr. Xie never in­ten­tion­ally or know­ingly pos­sessed any un­law­ful im­ages.”

Xie and Mays also dis­missed as “lu­di­crous” me­dia re­ports that the FBI is in­ves­ti­gat­ing the can­cer re­searcher for pos­si­ble es­pi­onage on be­half of China. Mays said the FBI showed no in­ter­est in talk­ing to Xie when he of­fered to an­swer any ques­tions it might have. Mays said the re­port this week by NBC News was the first Xie and he heard of the sug­ges­tion.

“The charge is ab­surd,” said Xie, 56. “I’ve been in Hous­ton 29 years with one in­sti­tu­tion, MD An­der­son, where I didn’t do any­thing but search for the cure for can­cer. I’ve never com­mit­ted any es­pi­onage.”

In a state­ment, MD An­der­son said it is “not aware Xie has stolen any in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty.”

A spokes­woman for the FBI said the agency could nei­ther con­firm nor deny whether it is con­duct­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

Xie is ac­cused of pos­sess­ing five

child pornog­ra­phy im­ages. Free on $25,000 bail, he faces a max­i­mum of 10 years in pri­son if convicted of the third-de­gree felony of pos­ses­sion of child pornog­ra­phy. He has sur­ren­dered his pass­port af­ter ap­pear­ing last month in front of state Dis­trict Judge Denise Collins.

Mays said the thumb­nail-sized im­ages, lo­cated in a re­cy­cle bin on an ex­ter­nal hard drive, haven’t been ac­cessed since they were placed there in 2013. He said how they got there is a mys­tery and added that a com­puter foren­sic an­a­lyst he hired said it is not un­com­mon for such im­ages to be ac­ci­den­tally down­loaded.

The case dates to Jan­uary, when a com­puter se­cu­rity of­fi­cer, us­ing a pro­gram to watch what Xie was do­ing on his MD An­der­son com­puter, saw the re­searcher ap­pear to al­ter a restau­rant re­ceipt us­ing Pho­to­shop. He re­ferred the mat­ter to Univer­sity of Texas at Hous­ton po­lice to in­ves­ti­gate as a pos­si­ble case of tam­per­ing with a gov­ern­ment record.

Xie agreed to co­op­er­ate with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and con­sented to a search, in which po­lice took more than 80 elec­tronic de­vices out of his home and lab, in­clud­ing lap­tops and ex­ter­nal hard drives, Mays said. Po­lice also had a judge sign a search war­rant at 1 a.m. to search Xie’s com­put­ers in case he re­fused.

That data, about 40 ter­abytes, con­tained years of test re­sults and other work, in­clud­ing those of Xie’s as­sis­tants, Mays said.

The UT po­lice hired an out­side com­pany to con­duct a foren­sic in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the data as part of their in­ves­ti­ga­tion of tam­per­ing with a gov­ern­ment record.

In March, that com­pany no­ti­fied the UT po­lice that it sus­pected five im­ages to be known child pornog­ra­phy. The po­lice at UT took that re­port to the In­ter­net Crimes Against Chil­dren unit at the Hous­ton Po­lice Depart­ment, where a de­tec­tive said he be­lieved that the im­ages were child pornog­ra­phy.

But HPD did not seek charges and in­stead sent the case back to the UT po­lice depart­ment — un­usual, Mays said, be­cause HPD typ­i­cally ar­rests sus­pects once child pornog­ra­phy is de­tected.

“They’re the lo­cal ex­perts in this field,” Mays said.

In June, the UT po­lice got an­other war­rant to search Xie’s com­put­ers again but found noth­ing new, ac­cord­ing to court doc­u­ments. Two months later, Xie was ar­rested.

HPD re­ferred ques­tions to the UT po­lice, who re­ferred ques­tions to MD An­der­son’s ad­min­is­tra­tion. It is­sued a state­ment not­ing only that Xie re­signed in April and faces charges in Har­ris County Dis­trict Court for pos­ses­sion of child pornog­ra­phy “as a re­sult of a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion con­ducted by the Univer­sity of Texas Po­lice Depart­ment at Hous­ton and the Hous­ton Po­lice Depart­ment.”

Mays said Xie re­signed be­cause he was hu­mil­i­ated by the charges, stress­ing his com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship with an in­sti­tu­tion he suc­cess­fully sued in 2011 to gain ten­ure. Xie said he was “tired of be­ing put un­der the mi­cro­scope.”

Xie ap­plied for a job as chair­man of the depart­ment of in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary on­col­ogy at the Univer­sity of Ari­zona in late 2017 and was hired in July 2018. He was placed on ad­min­is­tra­tive leave af­ter the school learned of the charges against him, a spokesman said.

“Keping Xie came to the Univer­sity of Ari­zona in July be­fore the univer­sity was aware of any al­le­ga­tions or charges made against him,” Chris Sig­urd­son, vice pres­i­dent of com­mu­ni­ca­tions, said in a state­ment. “Upon learn­ing of the charges, Xie was im­me­di­ately placed on ad­min­is­tra­tive leave and di­rected not to come to cam­pus.”

Mays said Xie hadn’t told Ari­zona of­fi­cials of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion be­cause he didn’t ex­pect any­thing to come of it.

This child pornog­ra­phy charge is the sec­ond against an MD An­der­son pro­fes­sor in the last few years. Dr. Den­nis Pa­trick Hughes, a pe­di­a­tri­cian, was charged with pos­ses­sion of child pornog­ra­phy in June 2015 and sen­tenced to seven years in pri­son in De­cem­ber 2016.

In that case, MD An­der­son im­me­di­ately reached out to Hughes’ pa­tients to share the news. There was no such dis­clo­sure of the al­le­ga­tions against Xie, said an MD An­der­son spokes­woman, be­cause he is no longer em­ployed by the in­sti­tu­tion and never was in­volved in pa­tient care.

Xie

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