updated 5/21/2008 11:12:03 AM ET 2008-05-21T15:12:03

A retired University of Tennessee professor was indicted Tuesday on charges of conspiring to provide military secrets to a Chinese graduate student.

J. Reece Roth, 70, a professor emeritus who headed the school's Plasma Sciences Lab, faces 18 charges related to violating the Arms Export Control Act and trying to defraud the U.S. Air Force.

The charges involve work performed from 2004 to 2006 by Roth, the student and a university spinoff company for an Air Force contract to develop flight controls for unmanned aircraft, or "drones."

Prosecutors said Roth and the company he helped found, Atmospheric Glow Technologies Inc., failed to get government permission before involving foreign national Xin Dai in the work.

The government also claims Roth carried sensitive documents on a lecture trip to China in 2006 and directed wire transmissions of restricted technical data to China.

Xin was in the U.S. on a visa to work on his doctorate in electrical engineering at the university. He was one of several students, including an Iranian national, who worked on the contract. Atmospheric Glow Technologies, which was started to market commercial applications for the plasma lab's research, has since filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Roth's attorney said his client did nothing illegal and has conducted himself ethically and honestly.

Could get 150 years in prison
The indictments come about two years after Roth was searched and questioned by federal agents after returning from a trip to China. He told The Knoxville News Sentinel in 2006 that all the work he discussed abroad was already published in scientific papers and journals.

"Certainly the technology was complicated, the research they were doing was complicated," attorney Thomas Dundon said Tuesday. "But I don't think the facts of the case — what was done, what was thought — I don't think those are complicated."

If convicted, Roth could face more than 150 years in prison and millions of dollars in fines. He is expected to make an initial court appearance next week.

One of Roth's colleagues, physicist Daniel Max Sherman of Littleton, Colo., 37, has pleaded guilty on related charges and is awaiting sentencing, though he claimed he was unaware a law was broken.

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