WILMINGTON, Del. (AP) — A former scientist for a Kentucky-based government contractor involved in defense and law enforcement work was sentenced Monday to a year and day in federal prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy in an international software piracy scheme.
Prosecutors said Wronald Best, 55, bought more than $600,000 pirated software programs from Xiang Li, a Chinese national who is awaiting sentencing in May. Prosecutors also said Best paid $6,000 to obtain more than 60 industrial software applications, worth more than $2.3 million, from Chinese and Russian sources who "cracked" access control mechanisms preventing unauthorized use.
Authorities said Best, a former chief scientist for MPD Inc. in Owensboro, Ky., used the software to work on several projects in which the company was involved, including Patriot missile components and cathodes used in the weather radar systems of military helicopters. These include Army Blackhawks and Marine One, which is used to transport the president of the United States. Prosecutors said Best also used the software for work on traffic radar and alcohol breath test systems used by law enforcement agencies across the country.
"We have no reason to believe his use of the cracked software affected the products in any negative way," Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward McAndrew told The Associated Press during a break in Monday's hearing. McAndrew said prosecutors nevertheless have passed on information they obtained during their investigation to the Defense Department and Secret Service.
Best, who once worked at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, faced up to five years in prison after pleading guilty last year to conspiracy to commit criminal copyright infringement. Best asked Judge Leonard Stark for a lenient sentence, citing health problems including diabetes and congestive heart failure, his devotion to his family, and his lack of a prior criminal record. Best and defense attorney Dan Lyons also suggested that Best's diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder may have influenced his behavior.
"I have ... an insatiable curiosity to learn new things and to learn new ways of solving problems," Best told the judge. "... I was compelled to do this. That is the honest answer I can provide."
Prosecutors argued that Best knew that what he was doing was both wrong and illegal but chose to engage in criminal activity anyway, including giving software titles he had obtained on a trial basis — using his status as chief scientist for MPD — to crackers so that they could circumvent access control codes and offering them tips on how to install cracked software and avoid detection.
"He was engaged in rampant digital theft and treated it daily as business as usual," McAndrew told the judge.
While noting that the case involved "truly unusual and complex circumstances," Stark said it nonetheless involved large-scale theft of industrial-level software.
"The bottom line, of course, is that theft is not justified by intellectual curiosity," Stark said, adding that Best had abused his position as a scientist.
Prosecutors have said Best was one of the biggest U.S. customers of Xiang Li, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to conspiracy to commit copyright infringement and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Li, 36, faces up to 25 years in prison when he is sentenced May 3. Prosecutors agreed to drop more than 40 other counts against him.
Authorities last year charged Xiang Li and a co-defendant, Chun Yan Li, with conspiracy, copyright infringement, smuggling, wire fraud, interstate transportation of stolen goods and other crimes. Chun Yan Li is still in China has not been arrested.
Prosecutors said the defendants reproduced and distributed copyrighted software produced by more than 150 manufacturers before Xiang Li was arrested after traveling to Saipan in 2011 to meet with undercover agents posing as customers.
Officials said Xiang Li sold 12 cracked software programs worth more than $1.2 million to Cosburn Wedderburn, then an electronics engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Md.
Wedderburn pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit copyright infringement and is to be sentenced May 3.