A Monterey Park man serving in the United States Navy has been arrested and accused of taking bribes in exchange for providing military information to China.
Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, 26, was taken into custody by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service on Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Justice said in a news release.
According to prosecutors, he used his security clearance to provide “non-public, sensitive U.S. military information” to a Chinese intelligence officer starting in August 2021 and continuing until at least May of this year.
Zhao captured the information in surreptitious recordings and photographs, including “operational plans for a large-scale U.S. military exercise in the Indo-Pacific Region, which detailed the specific location and timing of Naval force movements, amphibious landings, maritime operations and logistics support,” prosecutors said.
“The indictment further alleges that Zhao photographed electrical diagrams and blueprints for a radar system stationed on a U.S. military base in Okinawa, Japan,” the release explained.
In exchange for that information and details about Naval Base Ventura County and a base on San Clemente Island, Zhao allegedly received $14,866.
He is charged with conspiracy and receiving a bribe from a public official.
In a court appearance Thursday afternoon at the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building and United States Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, Zhao pleaded not guilty.
A trial date was set and the U.S. Attorney’s Office is asking the court to hold Zhao without bond. A detention hearing is scheduled for Aug. 8. If convicted on both counts, he faces up to 20 years in federal prison.
“By sending this sensitive military information to an intelligence officer employed by a hostile foreign state, the defendant betrayed his sacred oath to protect our country and uphold the Constitution,” United States Attorney Martin Estrada said in a statement. “Unlike the vast majority of U.S. Navy personnel who serve the nation with honor, distinction and courage, Mr. Zhao chose to corruptly sell out his colleagues and his country.”
Another sailor, Jinchao Wei, a 22-year-old assigned to the San Diego-based USS Essex, was also arrested on espionage charges, according to the AP.
It’s unclear if the two sailors are connected, but they were charged separately.