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Federal fraud charges against scientists with China ties collapse | Chemistry

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The U.S. government overstated its hand in indicting U.S. academics under the controversial China Initiative, three federal courts ruled last week.

In another case, Department of Justice (DOJ) attorneys accused chemist Franklin Tao, materials scientist Zhengdong Cheng, and mathematician Mingqing Xiao of endangering national security and deliberately hiding their ties to Chinese agencies. They claimed to have deceived the government. research. But last week, judges in Kansas, Texas and Illinois dismissed some of the most serious charges or handed down relatively lenient sentences for minor violations. One judge overturned Tao’s fraud conviction, and another accepted a plea bargain, dropping his nine fraud charges against Cheng.

Legal experts say the DOJ’s theory of what constitutes funding agency fraud has been found to be untenable. “these are [results] of the government [underlying] The theory of the case was dubious,” said Seton Hall University law professor and Chinese scholar Margaret Lewis. I doubt it. “The prosecutor’s primary duty is to win justice, not conviction,” she says.

After the sentence was handed down to Xiao, the DOJ “recommended a sentence it deems appropriate based on the law and the facts of the case. [But] We respect court decisions. He declined to comment on the other two.

A China initiative launched in 2018 by then-Donald Trump administration to stop economic espionage has led to indictments against about 20 academic scientists. Most of them are of Chinese descent, which civil rights groups said implied anti-Asian bias. This initiative has had mixed results. Prosecutors won guilty pleas and prison terms for some defendants, but then failed to drop charges or win jury verdicts for many others.

Last week brought another setback to the DOJ. In the case of Tao, who was on unpaid leave at the University of Kansas Lawrence, a jury found him guilty in April of one count of him filing incomplete papers and making false statements, and three counts of fraud. , acquitted him of four related counts. Fraud. Prosecutors had alleged that Tao committed fraud by hiding his work with Chinese institutions from his university and two of his funding agencies, the National Science Foundation and his Department of Energy.

But last week, U.S. District Court Judge Julie Robinson took the unusual step of overturning three fraud convictions. In her 61-page judgment, Robinson noted that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that evidence was required that a defendant had taken money or property from someone. was fulfilling the research promised to his university, she writes. “Evidence presented at the trial indicated that all three received what they bargained for,” she said.

“Otherwise, the government would never have considered prosecuting them for fraud,” asserts Tao’s attorney, Peter Zaidenberg. “But when it comes to Chinese-American scientists and anything related to China, [prosecutors] They haven’t applied the normal filtering process they go through in determining what is a legitimate case. ”

Tao is scheduled to be sentenced on the remaining case in January. Meanwhile, Robinson’s decision mirrors similar findings by judges in other China Initiative cases.

For example, in September 2021, U.S. District Judge Thomas Varlan acquitted mechanical engineer Anming Hu of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville on six counts of fraud against NASA. “A reasonable jury cannot conclude that [Hu] It carried out a plan to defraud NASA by not revealing its affiliation with a Chinese university,” Varlan wrote in the judgment on page 52.

In April, U.S. District Judge Staci Yandle dismissed two fraud charges against Xiao, a mathematics professor at Southern Illinois University (SIU) in Carbondale. A jury found him not guilty of making false statements but guilty of failing to disclose foreign bank accounts on his tax returns.

But last week, a judge denied the government’s request to sentence Xiao to a year in prison and a heavy fine. Instead, she ordered Xiao to pay her one-year probation and her $600 fine. Currently on paid leave, Xiao hopes to be reinstated from SIU.

Ryan Poscablo of Steptoe & Johnson, Xiao’s lead attorney, said the levy “was worth civil remedies if it was worth enforcement.”

Cheng, a former materials scientist at Texas A&M University (TAMU) in College Station, was arrested in August 2020 and jailed on false statements related to NASA grants and nine counts of fraud. But last week, the government dropped the fraud count. Chen subsequently pleaded guilty to two counts of his making false statements. He agreed to repay NASA his $86,876 and pay a $20,000 fine. Both sides agreed to a prison sentence while serving. Cheng had already spent 13 months in prison. (TAMU fired Cheng in December 2020.)

It is not clear how many cases of ongoing China initiatives remain. In February, the DOJ announced it was renaming the initiative due to the perception that the phrase “has a chilling effect on scientists from China based in the United States.” [and] It fueled narratives of intolerance and bigotry. But Seidenberg says there has been no real change in the government’s approach to what it now calls a “strategy to counter the nation-state threat” to the United States.