Feds indict coastal researchers for stealing Water Institute trade secrets

    Stolen trade secrets from a proprietary computer program by a foreign national doing scientific research in this country sounds like fodder for a good summer beach read.

    Actually, though, it’s the subject of allegations contained in a four-count indictment recently returned by a grand jury in the U.S. Middle District Court and involving The Water Institute of the Gulf.

    According to the indictment, announced earlier today by U.S. Attorney Brandon Fremin’s office, the case centers on two coastal scientists—Ehab Meslhe and Kelin Hu—who worked at TWIG for several years until 2018, and attempted to steal computer trade secrets from TWIG’s proprietary Basin Wide Model computer program. Meslhe, known as a prolific and skilled researcher at TWIG, was responsible for bringing in many research grants during his time there.

    The program was developed at TWIG over many years, according to the indictment, and contained unique codes and files used to run the model, which predicts how the Mississippi Delta could change over time.

    The indictment alleges Meslhe, 53, and Hu, 42, both of whom left TWIG in 2018 for research positions at Tulane University’s River and Coastal Center, downloaded the program to their personal electronic devices and planned to use the information for their own economic benefit and that of their current employer, identified in the indictment only as “the other water research institution.”

    Meslhe, a U.S. citizen living in Lafayette and New Orleans, and Hu, a Chinese citizen living in Baton Rouge, were each charged with conspiracy to steal trade secrets, attempting to steal trade secrets and conspiracy to commit computer fraud and abuse. Hu also was charged with committing computer fraud and abuse.

    The indictment goes on to describe the alleged scheme in rich detail. Among them: how Meslhe allegedly told Hu not only which files to copy, making sure they included the trade secrets but also when to copy them in relation to Hu’s anticipated resignation from TWIG, and how he should communicate with Meselhe via personal Google Message so they wouldn’t get caught.

    Hu was attempting to download the files when he was caught in the act, the indictment alleges. He and Meselhe have already been arraigned and pleaded not guilty.

    Meslhe, who got his masters’ degree and Ph.D. in civil engineering in the 1990s from the University of Iowa, previously worked as a professor at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette before becoming a researcher at TWIG. He then left to join Tulane’s faculty, according to his LinkedIn page.

    Hu came to Louisiana in 2008 to do post-doctoral research at LSU before joining TWIG as a researcher. According to his LinkedIn page, he has been a research assistant professor at Tulane since January.

    The indictment does not implicate in the scheme Tulane’s River and Coastal Center, which both competes with TWIG and also collaborates with it on projects. In a statement, Tulane says it looks forward to continuing that collaborative relationship with TWIG and is fully cooperating with the U.S. Attorney’s office.

    For now, both researchers remain on faculty but their employment status will be determined following an internal review, the statement says.

    TWIG, in a statement of its own, says “We are deeply troubled and saddened by the recent allegations and charges filed against our former colleagues. We will continue to cooperate fully with federal law enforcement and we have hired outside experts to conduct a comprehensive review of our internal processes and systems—including information technology, security, and intellectual property—to ensure all appropriate measures are in place.”

    The Water Institute of the Gulf was created in the mid-2000s to conduct coastal research that would help inform the planning and funding decisions of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.

    It is housed in the flagship building of The Water Campus, a research park near downtown between the Mississippi River and Nicholson Drive developed by the Baton Rouge Area Foundation.  

    View Comments