St. Cloud State philosophy professor Yiwei (Steve) Zheng is on paid leave after pleading guilty during the first week of spring semester to illegally smuggling items made of elephant ivory and rhinoceros horns to and from the United States in 2010 and 2011.
For some of Zheng’s students this semester, such as Zach Parker, the news came as somewhat of a shock. Parker, who was enrolled in Zheng’s multicultural philosophy class, said he had no idea that his professor was facing federal charges in court.
“I never expected anything wrong with him to even pull off a crime like that. He seemed very nice and innocent in the classes I’ve had this [first] week,” Parker said.
Zheng, who has been with SCSU since 1999, entered his guilty plea in US District Court in Minneapolis on Jan. 13, admitting to have “knowingly and fraudulently” smuggled elephant ivory out of the United States on April 30, 2011, according to a release from the US Attorney’s Office.
Zheng was placed on paid administrative leave from the university shortly after his guilty plea.
The director of media relations and publications for the university, Adam Hammer, said, “St. Cloud State University is taking this matter very seriously and based on the reported developments, the university will determine its next steps by following its established employment procedures and applicable law. As required in all faculty employment matters, the university must follow its procedures and the contract between the Inter Faculty Organization and the MnSCU Board of Trustees.”
Zheng also pleaded guilty to violating the Lacey Act (a federal law protecting wildlife) by exporting two rhinoceros horns from the United States in July 2010, the US Attorney’s Office reported, knowing they were sold and transported against US laws and regulations, including the Endangered Species Act.
Beyond his employment at St. Cloud State, Zheng operated an online business called Crouching Dragon Antiques, which offered and sold a variety of items, including elephant ivory and rhinoceros horns, according to the US Attorney’s Office.
The US Attorney’s Office reported the illegal activity was discovered on May 5, 2011, when US Customs and Border Protection officers at the International Mail Facility in Chicago identified the parcel being shipped from Zheng to an individual in Shanghai, China.
A United States Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife inspector determined the package contained a number of elephant ivory carvings – carefully concealed under a dismissive label, “Chinese artifact: Desk Decorative item” with an understated value of $35, according the US Attorney’s Office.
Zheng later admitted in court that he purchased the ivory items in the intercepted shipment through an online auction site, with the value actually being $6,961.41. The agents documented Zheng smuggled items in and out of the United States, China and elsewhere with approximately $1 million in value. Zheng confirmed that the fair market value of the illegal wildlife accounted in his case was between $500,000 and $1.5 million, the US Attorney’s Office reported.
Assistant US Attorney Laura Provinzino said in the report, “The US Attorney’s Office is committed to protecting the environment and natural resources by prosecuting those individuals who violate our federal laws. Cases like this are important to curb the market for rhinoceros horn and elephant ivory to help ensure the survival of those species around the globe.”
The US Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Assistant Director for Law Enforcement Ed Grace stated, “This is another significant case which documents the extent of global wildlife trafficking and the pressure it places on the world’s most rare and endangered animals.”
Zheng is set to be sentenced on May 9, 2016, facing a maximum sentence of up to 10 years imprisonment and a criminal fine of up to $500,000, according to the report.
Meanwhile, Zheng will remain on leave while the Inter Faculty Organization and the MnSCU Board of Trustees are investigating the matter.
For Zheng’s students like Parker, the atmosphere of the semester has been altered.
“Being that he knowingly transported these items out of the country, I’m not sure if I [could] trust a professor that has committed this unruly act,” Parker said. “I do need to finish the class to fill my diversity requirement.”
Parker is still able to fulfill his diversity requirement, as Philosophy Professor Jordan Curnutt has taken over teaching the course for the remainder of the semester. Parker said he is relieved there’s a new professor in place after everything that happened.