Prominent Harvard Professor Found Guilty of Lying About China Ties - WSJ
Category: News & PoliticsVia: vic-eldred • one month ago • 13 comments
By: By Byron Tau and Aruna Viswanatha
A jury on Tuesday found Harvard professor Charles Lieber guilty on six counts related to payments he received from a Chinese government talent program, delivering a win for the U.S. government.
The closely watched trial in federal court in Boston has emerged as a key test of a Justice Department initiative meant to combat Beijing’s efforts to mine U.S. universities to catapult China to the forefront of scientific development.
Mr. Lieber, who holds joint appointments in Harvard University’s chemistry and engineering departments and is a renowned expert in the field of nanoscience, was accused of lying to government investigators about his participation in the Chinese government’s Thousand Talents program aimed at wooing foreign experts. He also was charged with failing to disclose cash payments from the program on his income tax returns and concealing the existence of a Chinese bank account.
The verdict, returned after less than three hours of deliberations, marks a stunning fall for Mr. Lieber, who came under scrutiny by federal investigators over an academic partnership with the Wuhan University of Technology that dates back a decade. Prosecutors showed documentary evidence that Mr. Lieber had signed a Thousand Talents agreement with Wuhan that paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars—some in cash and some deposited into a Chinese bank account.
The Wuhan school also had appointed Mr. Lieber as director of the WUT-Harvard Joint Nano Key Laboratory, a lab that Harvard officials said they had no knowledge of and hadn’t approved as a collaborator. Harvard later asked Wuhan to remove the school’s name from the collaboration, and Harvard employees testified at trial that Mr. Lieber hadn’t followed the process needed to establish a collaboration.
Mr. Lieber’s legal team argued that the professor’s conduct was sloppy but not criminal and that the government lacked key pieces of evidence needed to prove the charges.
“If there was a Nobel Prize for inventing something out of nothing, the government’s case would win it,” Mr. Lieber’s lawyer, Marc Mukasey, told the jury. Mr. Mukasey likened Chinese offers to pay Mr. Lieber to letters from Publishers Clearinghouse, the sweepstakes company known for sending out mass mailings telling people they were “finalists” for a prize.
After the jury’s decision, Mr. Mukasey said in an email, “We respect the verdict and will keep up the fight.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney James Drabick introduced the case to jurors by saying it was “about false statements, false tax returns, and an unreported bank account in China.” When criminal investigators from the Defense Department asked Mr. Lieber in 2018 whether he had an affiliation with the Chinese talent program, Mr. Lieber “did not tell them the truth during that interview,” Mr. Drabick said.
The most direct evidence against Mr. Lieber were tapes of an hourslong interview with FBI agents immediately after his arrest in early 2020. The tapes offered a window into the world of high-stakes academic research as well as efforts by foreign universities and governments to recruit and reward top scientists.
“A lot of countries—money is what they have in excess,” Mr. Lieber is heard saying on the recording, recounting to agents an episode in which a foreign university in the Middle East offered to pay him the equivalent of his Harvard salary to use his name in a program.
“Money is a big temptation,” he said. “That’s one of the things that China uses to seduce people.”
In the video recordings, Mr. Lieber acknowledged that he was paid in cash during his visits to China and gave the money to his wife for their living expenses such as groceries and other bills without ever reporting it on their tax returns. He told agents that his Chinese bank account had about $200,000 in it but that he never used the money for anything—eventually concluding that he “didn’t need it and [he] didn’t believe it was the right thing” to use the cash.
He said his primary motivation for the partnership in China was recognition. International collaborations and spreading research techniques he developed around the globe could help him in his lifelong dream to win a Nobel Prize, he told investigators.
“I want to be recognized for what I’ve done,” he told the FBI. “Every scientist wants to win a Nobel Prize.”
Mr. Lieber was convicted on charges of making false statements, which carry a potential penalty of up to five years in prison, but with no criminal history Mr. Lieber is likely to face less than six months in prison. His other convictions were on tax crimes and foreign bank reporting violations that rarely carry prison time in cases involving relatively modest sums of money, such as Mr. Lieber’s.
For the government, the case emerged as an example in the Justice Department’s efforts to crack down on academics over what prosecutors say are failures to disclose foreign funding ties when applying for U.S. government grants. Participating in foreign-funded academic research isn’t illegal, but many U.S. government grant programs that fund scientific endeavors require disclosure in order to have a clear picture before making decisions about what projects to support.
The Justice Department’s efforts are designed to address suspicions that the Chinese government was exploiting academic ties to engage in technological espionage. The government has accused about two dozen academics of lying to investigators or on paperwork about their China affiliations, without also accusing them of stealing information or espionage.
Out of 24 other cases the government has brought, nine defendants have pleaded guilty. Charges have been dropped in six others, five of which officials said they dismissed because the scientists involved already had been sufficiently punished by being detained or otherwise restricted for a year. Another professor was acquitted at trial and department officials are weighing whether to drop other cases , The Wall Street Journal has reported.
Civil-liberties and academic groups have criticized the cases for creating an environment of suspicion that they say stigmatized Chinese and other Asians, pointing to the acquittal in September of University of Tennessee-Knoxville professor Anming Hu on charges that he hid his China ties when applying for research grants to work on a National Aeronautics and Space Administration project.