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Was Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe somehow spooked by a senior partner’s involvement in a corporate espionage case related to China’s hunger for genetically modified seed technology? The firm won’t say, but the partner is gone and the firm has withdrawn from the high-profile case even as it continues to expand.

Last month, white-collar chair Mark Beck quietly left Orrick after agreeing to represent Mo Hailong (a.k.a. Robert Mo) in a widening criminal prosecution in Iowa, in which Mo and other Chinese nationals are accused of pilfering patented GMO seeds from agribusiness giants Monsanto Company and E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. According to an Orrick spokeswoman, Beck is taking a temporary leave from the firm.

Beck entered an appearance in the seed case shortly after Mo’s arrest last December. At the time, Los Angeles-based Beck was still chairing Orrick’s white-collar and corporate investigations practice, and Mo also retained two other high-ranking Orrick partners, San Francisco-based Walter Brown Jr. and Beijing-based Xiang Wang.

Orrick moved to withdraw from representing Mo on June 18, according to a July 2 court filing that granted the withdrawal. The same court filing identifies Beck as substitute counsel. He has a new office, email address and bare-bones website, www.markbecklaw.com.

We first presumed that Beck parted ways from Orrick and took the case with him, as lawyers are wont to do. But communications manager Jolie Goldstein told us that while Orrick has exited the Mo case, Beck’s departure from the firm is temporary. She called the move a “strategic decision relating to a client matter” but declined to say how long Beck’s leave will last or offer any further clues.

Beck didn’t respond to our phone calls, and Brown, who is a member of Orrick’s executive board, referred our request for comment back to Goldstein. The federal prosecutor on the case, Jason Griess, also didn’t return a call seeking comment.

Meanwhile, the seed case is continuing to heat up. Federal prosecutors in Des Moines allege that Mo and other employees of Beijing Debei Nong Group Co. (known as DBN Group) and its subsidiaries conspired to steal patented seeds from secret test fields in the Midwest and ship them to China in order to reproduce their traits. On July 2, prosecutors added criminal charges against a seventh Chinese national, Mo Yun, who oversaw DBN Group’s research project management team from 2001 to 2009. Mo Yun is the sister of Mo Hailong and the wife of Chinese billionaire and DBN Group chairman Shao Genhuo.