US dismisses case against MIT professor convicted of ties with China

WASHINGTON (AP), -- Thursday's decision by the Justice Department to drop its case against a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who was accused of hiding ties with China, a setback for a federal initiative that aimed to stop Beijing profiting from academic research at U.S. universities and colleges.

20 January 2022 Thursday 13:49
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US dismisses case against MIT professor convicted of ties with China

Gang Chen case: The department made its decision in a single-page file in Boston federal court, stating that it was unable to meet its burden of proof.

Rachael Rollins (the top federal prosecutor in Massachusetts), said that the move was in the "interests of justice" and was based on new information received by the government about the allegations.

Rollins stated that after examining the new information within the context of all evidence, the office concluded that it could no longer fulfill its burden of proof at trial. "As prosecutors we have an obligation in all matters we pursue to continue to examine the facts and be open to receiving new information."

This is the result that was expected and had been recommended earlier by Boston prosecutors. It also marks a setback to the China Initiative, a Justice Department initiative created in 2018 to combat Chinese economic espionage.

The initiative's main prong has been focused on U.S. academics who are accused of hiding research ties with China in grant applications. However, critics claim it has unfairly targeted ethnicity-based researchers.

Wyn Hornbuckle, spokesperson for the Justice Department, stated that the Justice Department is currently looking at the future of this program. This process should be completed in the next few weeks.

Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering at MIT was arrested during the Trump administration's final days. He was charged with concealing ties between Beijing and collecting U.S. Dollars for his research in nanotechnology.

Prosecutors alleged that he entered into undisclosed appointments and contracts with Chinese entities. He also acted as an "overseas specialist" for the Chinese government upon request of the People's Republic of China Consulate Office, New York.

Authorities stated in court documents that many of these roles were "expressly intended for the advancement of the PRC's scientific-technical goals."

Chen was accused of not disclosing information regarding China connections in an Energy Department grant application. Chen's lawyers maintained that he was innocent and disclosed only what was necessary.

As the government received more information, including from Energy Department, the case started to unravel, according to a source familiar with the matter.

Robert Fisher, the defense attorney, said Thursday that the case was a "wayward prosecution" but that his client was eager for a return to work. He thanked "many witnesses" who spoke out to tell the government how they misunderstood details about scientific and academic collaboration.

"Our defense was that Gang didn't commit any of these offenses. It's that simple. He never participated in talent programs. He was not an outgoing scientist for Beijing. Fisher stated in a statement that he disclosed all he was required to disclose and never lied to anyone.

Most of the China Initiative cases involving professors were based on allegations of grant fraud, rather than accusations that researchers tried to pass on academic studies or secrets to China.

Last month, the Harvard University professor was convicted of hiding his connections to a Chinese-run recruitment agency. This was a major victory for the initiative.

Other cases that were brought in as part of China Initiative have also failed.

In September, a federal judge dismissed all charges against a University of Tennessee professor who was accused of concealing his relationship to a Chinese university and receiving research grants from NASA. The university offered to reinstate him.

Critics of China Initiative called on the Justice Department for the program's termination. Matthew Olsen (the top official in national security at the department) met Wednesday with members from the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus to discuss their concerns.

Andrew Lelling was the U.S. Attorney in Boston at Chen's trial and wrote several weeks ago in a LinkedIn posting that the "initiative had drifted" and lost its focus. DOJ should restructure and close down certain parts of the program to prevent unnecessary chilling of scientific and business collaborations between Chinese partners.

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