Scientist facing child porn charge
Cancer researcher resigned from MD Anderson in April
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.