Grand jury indicts Harvard prof for lying about China funding

A grand jury has indicted one of the country’s foremost chemists, Charles Lieber, on charges of lying to government officials. Lieber maintains his innocence.

In a January criminal complaint, the Justice Department charged the Harvard scholar with lying to government officials about his work for a Chinese university. But the second step — indictment by grand jury — took months, as the novel coronavirus had stalled grand jury proceedings around the country.

Now, the next step has officially been taken. The charging documents say that Lieber had a relationship with the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT), a prominent Chinese institution, while also chairing Harvard University’s Department of Chemistry. Authorities also allege that when Department of Defense investigators asked Lieber about his relationship with WUT, he lied––and that he lied another time to Harvard, causing the university to share bad information about his affiliation with the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Lieber received grant funding from both DOD and NIH. In both instances, he allegedly denied participating in China’s Thousand Talents Plan. The charging documents say that he actually was a participant.

The Thousand Talents Plan recruits academics from around the world to research in China, working at Chinese institutions and with students there. The effort has raised concerns among American national security officials; a DOJ press release announcing the charges against Lieber said Thousand Talents and other similar programs “reward individuals for stealing proprietary information” and exist to further China’s national security.

Participating in the program isn’t illegal. But it is illegal to lie to federal authorities as part of conversations about grant funding.

“The government has this wrong,” said his trial counsel, Marc Mukasey. “Professor Lieber has dedicated his life to science and to his students. Not money, not fame, just his science and his students. He is the victim in this case, not the perpetrator. But he’s also a fighter — he always has been — so we’re not taking this lying down. We’re fighting back. And when justice is done, Charlie’s good name will be restored and the scientific community again will be able to benefit from his intellect and passion.”

It’s one of the highest-profile cases in the Justice Department’s nationwide China Initiative, a project designed to counter Chinese espionage efforts in the U.S. The wide-ranging undertaking has homed in on academics who fail to disclose Chinese government funding to the U.S. government when applying for grants. DOJ officials argue that the Chinese government co-opts these American academics to advance its own interests. Critics of these cases say they turn professors into criminals for making clerical errors.

In an interview with POLITICO earlier this year, Andrew Lelling — the U.S. Attorney supervising the Lieber prosecution––said his office has worked to build closer relationships within academia.

“You get leads sometimes from the universities themselves, if they have a good working relationship with us and with the FBI,” he said at the time. “A big component of the China Initiative is outreach.”

And John Demers, who heads the DOJ’s National Security Division, said DOJ Headquarters has encouraged all 94 U.S. Attorney’s Offices to bring China-related cases.

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