FBI investigating Liebherr stolen truck designs lawsuit
Liebherr Mining & Construction Equipment alleges that several former employees of its Newport News production plant stole thousands of design documents used to make huge mining trucks — then turned the documents over for copycat truck production in China. Liebherr‘s model is seen at right, the Chinese-built version at left. (Photos courtesy of Liebherr)
The FBI is looking into a case in which a local manufacturer is accusing several of its former workers of stealing designs for a huge mining dump truck for copycat truck production in China.
A lawsuit brought by Liebherr Mining & Construction Equipment — a Swiss company that runs a mining truck factory in Newport News — has been strictly a civil proceeding. But the FBI’s recent request for numerous documents from the case could indicate the agency is exploring criminal charges.
The FBI has recently made it a national priority to go after economic espionage, in which foreign entities — particularly those in China and Russia, the agency says — rip off sensitive American business know-how.
On May 13, the FBI’s Detroit office filed a request with the Newport News Circuit Court, asking the clerk’s office for 32 documents in the 2011 lawsuit. That includes the initial complaint and two amended complaints; 12 answers to those complaints by the defendants; some email documents; and 15 exhibits.
The clerk’s office provided the FBI with most of those documents over the next week, save for nine exhibits that are sealed on the basis that they include proprietary information.
It’s unclear why the FBI’s Detroit office would be involved, though a Michigan company — along with the Newport News workers and Chinese manufacturing companies — is a central defendant in Liebherr‘s 104-page lawsuit.
The lawsuit accuses the Michigan firm, Detroit Heavy Truck Engineering (DHTE), of helping to spearhead the conspiracy by recruiting several of the former Newport News workers to join its ranks for the purpose of stealing Liebherr truck designs and plans.
FBI cracking down on trade secret theft, reaching out to area businesses
Then, the suit contends, DHTE’s top two officials — Liangyu “Mike” Huang, and vice president Shenger “Ted” Ying — passed that information to Chinese companies. Huang could not be reached for comment on the FBI’s recent documents request, while Ying did not immediately return a phone message left with his wife at his Michigan home.
Liebherr recently dropped the civil lawsuit, which had been heading for a multiweek jury trial next month, against most of the defendants. But under the legal mechanism used to drop the case, the case can be brought back if it’s refiled within six months — with lawyers involved in the case saying they expect Liebherr will do that.
FBI Special Agent Aaron Steketee, who requested the court documents from the FBI’s Detroit office, did not return phone calls or emails this week on why he asked for them. Meanwhile, David Porter, a press spokesman with the FBI’s Detroit office, also declined to explain the request.
“I don’t have a comment,” Porter said Tuesday. “No one should presume that (the lack of comment) means one thing or another. That’s always our answer when we’re asked if we can confirm an investigation regarding A, B and C.”
Christina Pullen, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Norfolk office, also declined to say why the Detroit office asked for the information. “I cannot respond to what Detroit is doing,” she said. “I can’t respond to anything on any potential or pending investigations. That’s just our standard.”
At a court hearing Monday, Judge Timothy S. Fisher told lawyers about the FBI’s document request, said George Bowles, an attorney with Williams Mullen who is representing one of the defendant Chinese manufacturing groups.
Liebherr’s lead lawyer on the case, Brett A. Spain with the Norfolk office of Willcox & Savage, declined to say whether he had conversations with the FBI about the matter. “We did not refer them to the case, that’s all I’ll say,” Spain said.
The request came about a month after reporters from the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot met with several FBI officials in Norfolk about on the agency’s new initiative to crack down on economic espionage in Hampton Roads.
At that meeting, a Daily Press reporter asked whether the FBI was looking into the allegations made by Liebherr.
While the agency would neither confirm nor deny an investigation, the agency’s top local official, FBI Special Agent in Charge John S. Adams, asked the reporter for more details of the lawsuit — including whether Liebherr was alleging theft of trade secrets by an overseas entity.
But Pullen said Monday that that conversation did not trigger the request from the Detroit office.
“I can tell you that that conversation did not have anything to do with what is going on now,” she said. “(Adams) was just asking for clarification. … That conversation did not precipitate any action.”
Liebherr USA is a division of a Switzerland-based manufacturing group, Liebherr-International AG, founded in 1949. Liebherr mining trucks — built at a Newport News manufacturing plant off Interstate 664 — stand 29 feet tall and have a carrying capacity of 400 tons.
That dwarfs a normal dump truck, which stands about 10 feet tall and has a 40-ton payload, or only a tenth the capacity of the Liebherr trucks. In the 2011 lawsuit, Liebherr accused six former workers at the Newport News factory of conspiring to steal thousands of sensitive documents from the plant.
Liebherr’s suit also accused the Detroit firm of serving as a conduit to Chinese companies, and two Chinese manufacturing partnerships, accusing them of imitating a Liebherr diesel truck with a 400-ton payload.
The complaint asserts that the documents — from truck designs to vendor information to factory layouts — allowed the Chinese firms to build the trucks “in a fraction of the time, at a fraction of the cost, and with a fraction of the manpower as could be accomplished by lawful means.”
If the theft isn’t reversed, Liebherr contends, “American manufacturing jobs will be lost” to companies that have ripped off technology and processes that took decades and millions of dollars to develop.
All six workers — as well as the Detroit firm and the Chinese companies — have denied the allegations against them. The original defendant worker died about a year ago.