Federal prosecutors told a jury on Monday that the founder of the Mount Pleasant biotech firm GenPhar believed his company would benefit financially if he funneled money into the campaign of a U.S. senator.
Jian-Yun “John” Dong, 55, is standing trial in Charleston for indictments accusing him of conspiring to illegally make campaign contributions to U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham and his political action committee.
“When Dr. John Dong decided he was going to do something, he wasn’t going to let anything, even if it was illegal, get in the way,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Matt Moore said in his opening statement.
In 2006, Dong and his now estranged wife, Danher Wang, 53, contributed money to Graham’s campaign in hope it would help their disease-fighting firm obtain federal funds, Moore said. Wang pleaded guilty to her role in the alleged scheme last week, and she is expected to testify against Dong.
Graham is not accused of any wrongdoing. Graham’s office and federal prosecutors have maintained that the S.C. Republican has cooperated with investigators and did not know the donations were tainted.
Dong thought the more money he gave, the better his chances of winning grants or earmarks, Moore said.
But Dong had a problem. Federal Election Commission regulations capped the amount an individual can contribute to a campaign at $4,600, and Dong had reached that limit, Moore said.
Dong concocted a plan to funnel the additional money to Graham’s campaign through other people, Moore said. “The only problem with that plan was that it was illegal.”
Dong, who was dressed in a black suit, watched intently as Moore also accused him of lying to investigators and tampering with witnesses, which he is also charged with.
Dong was born and raised in China, where he received a medical degree. He came to the U.S. and received a degree in cellular molecular biology at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, said Dong’s attorney, James Griffin.
Griffin argued that Dong did not know these campaign contributions were illegal. He was simply trying to support a candidate “who believed in what he believed in,” he said.
During his opening statement, Griffin told the jury that Dong never intended to break the law. He was on a quest to eradicate diseases worldwide, specifically the Ebola and Marburg viruses — a quest that’s now in limbo because of the federal charges, he said.
“Today is a dark, dark day for Dr. Dong,” Griffin said.
Dong’s former assistant, Renee Hayden, later testified that Dong asked her and other GenPhar employees to make political contributions to Graham, which Dong would later reimburse. She said Dong offered her and the employees $100 for their service. Hayden quit shortly after.
Dong also convinced Reinhard Huebner, a German industrialist and a key investor in GenPhar, to give him $36,000 that he would use for campaign contributions, prosecutors said. Dong and Wang then recruited conduits, including their minor daughter, family members and other GenPhar employees, to donate that money to Graham in their names, prosecutors said.
Ron Paquette, the current chief executive officer of Huebner Manufacturing, was the company’s chief financial officer at the time Huebner began investing in GenPhar.
Paquette testified that he told both Huebner and Dong that campaign contributions through conduits, foreign nationals and corporations were all illegal acts. He said Huebner later listened to his warnings after Paquette sought outside legal advice which confirmed his position, he said.
A representative from the Federal Election Commission is expected to testify later this week. It remains unclear whether Graham will testify.
Dong is also accused of using false claims and bogus paperwork to steal $3.6 million worth of federal grant money that was intended for research on vaccines. Authorities said he used the money to pay for lobbying and to entertain a mistress in China, among other things. Dong is expected to go to trial for those charges later this year.
Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594.
Editor’s Note: Previous versions of this story incorrectly described the status of Jian-Yun “John” Dong with Mount Pleasant biotechnology company GenPhar. Dong is the company’s founder, president and chief scientific officer. The Post and Courier regrets the error.