Ex-PPG employee stole trade secrets for plastic airplane windows for Chinese firm

A retired PPG employee apparently resentful at his departure three years ago stole trade secrets worth "hundreds of millions of dollars" for plastic windows used on aircraft and high-speed trains and shared some of the information with a Chinese firm, the FBI said in a criminal complaint.

The suspect, Thomas Rukavina, 62, of Plum, retired from PPG in July 2012 and had been in contact with J.T.M.G. Co. of Jiangsu, China, since at least March 2013, according to emails detailed in the complaint. They were seized by the FBI under a federal search warrant obtained in February.

The Chinese company has not been criminally charged, and could not immediately be reached for comment when the charges were announced Friday morning in Pittsburgh, which was late Friday night in China.

The Chinese company makes glass for automotive and other specialty purposes. An email from the Chinese company asked Rukavina if he had signed "any type of confidential agreement and/or non-competitive agreement with PPG."

Rukavina responded by writing, "When you join and when you leave PPG you are forced to sign these documents. (If) you followed these documents as written you could never work again."

Rukavina went on to write that he was "forced out" and that had he not agreed to leave PPG, he would have received only $18,000 in severance pay instead of $100,000.

"If PPG owns my brain for life then they should pay me 2 million per year to keep it!!," he added.

Bryan Iams, PPG's vice president of corporate and government affairs, said the company is cooperating with authorities. PPG isn't saying anything else because the investigation is ongoing and because the company doesn't comment about current or former employees, Iams said.

U.S. Attorney David Hickton said combatting intellectual property theft has been a priority under President Barack Obama. Hickton said the investigation was continuing, but that he couldn't say whether the Chinese firm might be targeted, too.

"The reason intellectual property theft is so offensive is because ... it provides for our competitiveness and production and new frontiers in technology and ultimately provides jobs and opportunity," Hickton said. "We are not going to stand idly by and let it be stolen."

According to the complaint, PPG learned of the thefts when one of its vendors was contacted by the Chinese company in February. In the course of those emails, a J.T.M.G. official told the vendor that the vendor was "well recommended by our friend in (the) US." That "friend" was identified as Rukavina, who emailed the vendor identifying himself as "Tom Rukavina, Sr. Research Associate, PPG Industries" despite being retired for nearly three years, the complaint said.

PPG's chief technology officer told the FBI the various information Rukavina shared with the Chinese company would be worth "hundreds of millions of dollars." The plastic window product in question, OPTICOR, began development in 2004 "and was the industry's first new transparent plastic in more than 50 years," PPG told the FBI.

Rukavina was arrested Thursday and scheduled to appear before a federal magistrate in Pittsburgh on Friday. Calls to his home weren't answered Friday and the federal public defender's office did not immediately comment.