House members unanimously support foreign influence crackdown bills

Cybercrimes and Corporate Espionage
The Governor has already voiced support for the bills.

The Florida Legislature might be backseat driving U.S. foreign policy, but all members seem OK with that.

Two Gov. Ron DeSantis-backed bills cracking down on foreign espionage passed the House floor Wednesday with unanimous support.

The bills focus on foreign espionage under the guise of help with research or corporate trade secrets.

DeSantis specifically called out China as a central threat at the initial unveiling of several bills that take aim at U.S. foreign adversaries.

One of the bills (HB 7017) requires greater disclosure of where Florida researchers are getting their grant money and prohibits some agreements between government agencies or schools with China and six other countries.

Rep. Erin Grall, who sponsors the bill, said on the House floor Wednesday the idea for the legislation came after the House Select Committee on the Integrity of Research Institutions undertook a review in 2020 of Florida’s university-based research programs. The select committee learned that federal officials were investigating about 200 cases across the U.S. involving federal grant recipients of research funds, who had failed to disclose professional, academic and business relationships in violation of various requirements. Florida’s institutions were part of the investigations, including the Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute and the University of Florida, among others. The select committee determined Florida research grants often lacked requirements deemed reasonably necessary to ensure research integrity.

As a result of the review, the bill outlines rules and procedures to keep adverse foreign influence at bay in Florida’s colleges and universities. The bill names China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, and Syria as “foreign countries of concern.” The list was chosen from the federal foreign adversaries list.

Under the bill, universities and state agencies would be required to disclose to certain state departments foreign donations and grants over $50,000 from the named countries. Applicants for those grants would also be required to disclose all foreign financial connections with any of the seven countries of concern.

The bill also requires universities with research budgets over $10 million to perform extra screening of foreign applicants for research positions and extra screening for foreign travel and employee activities.

If the new law gets the Governor’s signature, donations “conditioned on a program to promote the language and culture of any of seven countries of concern” would also be prohibited.

Another bill passed by the House Wednesday (HB 1523), sponsored by Lithia Rep. Mike Beltran, takes aim at foreign governments by updating trade secret law. Under the bill, if trade secret theft is committed to benefit a foreign government or company, the offense would be a first-degree felony.

“It’s very important to protect companies from corporate espionage particularly from abroad,” Beltran said after a committee meeting in March. “We’ve kind of had mixed results at the federal level so we need to take charge here in Florida and protect our companies.”

Beltran’s bill would create the “Combating Corporate Espionage in Florida Act” by amending current trade secret theft definitions and crimes. A trade secret is a formula, process, device, or other business information kept confidential to maintain an advantage over competitors.

Beltran said current trade secret laws have loopholes arising from advances in technology.

“The criminal statute is outdated in that it requires you to actually take a physical item, which really isn’t the way people commit trade secret theft. They upload it to a cloud, they put it on their own USB, they download it onto their home computer. It’s not like 30 years ago, where you might print something, steal the blueprint, so forth,” Beltran explained.

The bill creates the crime of trafficking in trade secrets, a second-degree felony, which would be reclassified one degree higher if committed with intent to benefit a foreign government. About 80% of all economic espionage prosecutions brought by the U.S. Department of Justice allege conduct that would benefit the China.

The bill also allows private individuals and corporations greater ability to seek compensation in state court for stolen trade secrets, and offers immunity to a person who discloses a trade secret to authorities during an investigation or legal proceeding.

Haley Brown

Haley Brown covers state government for Previously, Haley covered the West Virginia Legislature and anchored weekend newscasts for WVVA in Bluefield, W.Va. Haley is a Florida native and a graduate of the University of Florida. You can reach her at [email protected].


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