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Charges dismissed against MIT professor accused of hiding research ties to China

Gang Chen, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in an undated photo.
Gang Chen, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in an undated photo. (Wen Zeng/MIT/Reuters)
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A federal court in Boston on Thursday dismissed charges against a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor accused of failing to disclose research ties to China, after the government acknowledged it could “no longer meet its burden of proof” at trial.

The dropping of the case against Gang Chen, a Chinese American nanoscientist, is a major public relations blow to a Justice Department program aimed at curbing economic espionage. The program, dubbed the China Initiative, has drawn complaints that it amounts to ethnic profiling, and is under department review.

U.S. District Judge Patti B. Saris’s order dismissing Chen’s case came shortly after federal prosecutors requested that action on Thursday morning.

“While I am relieved that my ordeal is over, I am mindful that this terribly misguided China Initiative continues to bring unwarranted fear to the academic community and other scientists still face charges,” Chen said in a statement.

The Washington Post and other news outlets reported that the case was in jeopardy last week.

Chen is among about 20 academics and researchers prosecuted in the past three years as part of the China Initiative, a wide-ranging and sometimes controversial effort launched in 2018.

China Initiative aims to stop economic espionage. Is targeting academics over grant fraud ‘overkill’?

The initiative has notched a number of significant convictions, including of a Taiwan chip foundry that stole U.S. trade secrets of an American chip firm for the benefit of a Chinese state-owned company; a Chinese national in Missouri who conspired to steal Monsanto crop-boosting technology to benefit the Chinese government; and three separate cases of former American intelligence officers accused of spying or conspiring or attempting to spy for China.

And in December, a Harvard University chemistry professor was found guilty of lying to the U.S. government about receiving payments from a Chinese university, falsifying his tax returns and failing to report foreign finances.

But the program in the past year has also suffered embarrassing setbacks in cases involving academics accused of grant fraud, rather than spying or intellectual property theft. The dismissal of charges against Chen is the most high-profile among these.

MIT consistently expressed public support for the professor, paying his legal expenses and placing him on paid leave.

“Today is a great day,” Rob Fisher, Chen’s attorney, said in a statement Thursday. “The government finally acknowledged what we have said all along: Professor Gang Chen is an innocent man. . . . He was never an overseas scientist for Beijing. He disclosed everything he was supposed to disclose, and he never lied to the government or anyone else.”

Chen, who became a U.S. citizen in 2000, was indicted a year ago on charges of wire fraud, making a false statement on a tax return and failing to disclose a foreign bank account. The charges related to his 2017 application for a U.S. Energy Department grant to support his program as then-head of MIT’s mechanical engineering department.

He was accused of failing to disclose ties to the Chinese government and a technology university in Shenzhen, as well as seeking to hide his membership in various government-funded talent recruitment programs.

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The prosecution’s case began to falter in December. Government lawyers, under pressure from Chen’s attorneys, turned over evidence that the defense considered exculpatory, according to people familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

What tipped the scale, the people said, was an interview by prosecutors this month of a senior Energy Department official who is considered an authority on what disclosures are material on grant forms. The official confirmed that the 2017 form did not require disclosures of Chen’s ties to the technology university or other Chinese government organizations and programs, one person said.

“Having assessed the evidence as a whole in light of that information, the government can no longer meet its burden of proof at trial,” newly installed U.S. Attorney Rachael S. Rollins said in Thursday’s motion.

“We understand that our charging decisions deeply impact people’s lives,” she said in a statement. “As United States Attorney, I will always encourage the prosecutors in our office to engage in this type of rigorous and continued review at every stage of a proceeding. Today’s dismissal is a result of that process and is in the interests of justice.”

Most of the academics and researchers prosecuted under the initiative have — like Chen — been charged with making false statements or failing to disclose ties to Chinese institutions on federal grant forms or visa applications, rather than intent to spy. All but a few are of Chinese descent.

The Justice Department rejects criticism from civil rights advocates and some Democratic lawmakers that the prosecutions amount to ethnic profiling. But the outcry has been so loud that Attorney General Merrick Garland commissioned a program review.

In a meeting this week with Assistant Attorney General Matt Olsen, Democratic leaders of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus said the initiative “has fallen far short of its stated goal of addressing economic espionage and has instead resulted in numerous false accusations against Chinese researchers and scientists based on their ethnicity,” caucus chair Judy Chu (D-Calif.) said.

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The caucus has called for an end to the initiative, which former Justice Department officials say would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They point out that most of the problematic cases have been those that involve allegations of academic grant fraud; the vast majority of cases — targeting economic espionage, trade secret theft and illegal export of military-use items — have not been controversial.

The department was bringing such cases long before there was a China Initiative, without a backlash, these former officials note.

Still, the department’s National Security Division is expected to make some changes, perhaps including a new name for the initiative, though civil liberties advocates say rebranding it would not be sufficient.

John Demers, a former NSD head, has said the government should consider granting immunity from prosecution to academics who voluntarily disclose Chinese government research ties and limiting administrative penalties like debarment. That approach would provide visibility into Chinese government talent programs, while avoiding accusations of overcriminalization and maintaining the trust of academic institutions, he said.

David Laufman, a former chief of the division’s counterintelligence and export control section, said the cases brought by prosecutors in the field require closer oversight by Justice Department headquarters.

While many prosecutions result in convictions, he said, “it only takes one or two or three cases that go south to undermine public confidence.”

In some instances of grant fraud, Laufman said, administrative enforcement “may be a more appropriate means of accountability” than criminal prosecution. But, he said, “that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be the same careful individualized case-by-case analysis of each case. . . . We need to be careful about an overcorrection.”

David Nakamura contributed to this report.

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