Chinese man charged in carbon fiber export sting

NEW YORK — A Chinese national was charged Wednesday in U.S. court with trying to broker an illegal deal for large quantities of a restricted high-tech material for military purposes, but prosecutors refused to say where and when he was arrested.

The silence gave an air of mystery to a case arising from rarely publicized efforts by the United States to curtail the black market in carbon fiber.

The defendant, Ming Suan Zhang, made a brief appearance Wednesday afternoon in federal court in Brooklyn on charges he sought the material for a fighter jet in China. A magistrate jailed him without bail.

Afterward, court-appointed defense attorney Daniel Nobel said the government had asked him not to disclose the circumstances of his client’s arrest, calling it a “somewhat sensitive matter.”

The lawyer described the 40-year-old Zhang as “an honest businessman who was caught up in something he didn’t really understand, but what believed was legal.” He said Zhang lives in Quanzhou, and works for a company that uses carbon fiber in the manufacturing of sports equipment.

Skis, golf clubs and tennis rackets aside, authorities say higher-grade carbon fiber is a key component in aerospace and nuclear engineering. That’s raised fears that the material could pose a risk if it falls into the hands of military foes or terrorists — and made it the subject of tight Department of Commerce regulations.

A criminal complaint accuses Zhang of contacting two Taiwanese accomplices who already were under investigation this year about buying specialized carbon fiber without an export license.

“When I place the order, I place one to two tons,” Zhang allegedly told one of the cohorts in a conversation intercepted in July. The complaint says one ton has a price tag of about $2 million.

An undercover U.S. agent posing as a seller of carbon fiber later emailed Zhang, inviting him to the United States to meet about a possible deal. On Aug. 10, Zhang told the agent that he was the middleman for a customer that “needed a sample of the carbon fiber because it would be used for the test flight of a ‘fighter plane’ on Oct. 5, 2012,” the complaint says.

Zhang also informed the agent he was planning to travel to the United States the second week of September. What happened to him thereafter was unclear.

Prosecutors wouldn’t discuss the arrest, Robert Nardoza, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Brooklyn, said Wednesday.

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