The head of Harvard University’s chemistry department has been found guilty of lying to US officials about his ties to Chinese research after pocketing millions of dollars from Beijing.
Charles Lieber, 62, told the FBI how he flew from Wuhan to Boston with bags filled with up to $100,000 in cash after striking a deal to share his nanoscience expertise with Chinese academics.
He was arrested in January over his involvement in the Thousand Talents Plan – designed by the Chinese Communist Party to recruit high-ranking scientists and researchers in foreign countries to funnel intelligence back to Beijing.
Lieber denied his involvement when questioned by US authorities, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which had provided his department with millions of dollars in research funding.
He concealed his income from the Chinese program, including $50,000 per month from the Wuhan University of Technology, up to $158,000 in living expenses and more than $1.5 million in grants.
Charles Lieber, 62, (outside court in Boston on Tuesday) told the FBI how he flew from Wuhan to Boston with bags filled with up to $100,000 in cash after striking a deal to share his nanoscience expertise
Lieber was the chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard at the time of his arrest
Lieber had pleaded not guilty to two counts of filing false tax returns, two counts of making false statements, and two counts of failing to file reports for a foreign bank account in China.
The jury deliberated for about two hours and 45 minutes before announcing the verdict on Tuesday following five days of testimony in Boston federal court.
Prosecutors argued that Lieber knowingly hid his involvement in China’s Thousand Talents Plan.
The program was established by the Chinese government in 2008 and has been designated a danger to national security by the US government.
Prosecutors told jurors that participating in the program was not a crime, however, it was illegal to conceal his funding from the Chinese entity.
He led the Lieber Research Group at Harvard which has collected more than $15 million in grants from the NIH and the Department of Defense.
On the morning of his arrest, Lieber told FBI agents that he was only paid travel expenses by the university in Wuhan.
But his account quickly changed at the campus police station when he was handed a copy of the five-year agreement he signed with the Wuhan University of Technology in 2011, agreeing his monthly salary plus living expenses.
‘That’s pretty damning,’ Lieber said during the January 28, 2020, interview.
He described traveling from Wuhan to Boston with bags filled with cash, totaling between $50,000 and $100,000. He never declared the money to the IRS.
‘I can’t even believe I did this,’ Lieber told the FBI when they showed him an e-mail written to a professor in Wuhan asking to be paid partly in cash and partly into a Chinese bank account.
Lieber told investigators he made fewer than six trips to China around 2012 and was paid $20,000 each time.
‘I guess I just put it in my bag and brought it back,’ he said, according to The Boston Globe.
The professor, who has been battling cancer for years, said that in 2014 he called to check the balance of the Chinese account because he was feeling ill and was worried about his family’s finances.
He said he believed the balance was around $200,000 but he did not decide to withdraw any.
‘I didn’t need it and I guess because we didn’t believe it was the right thing,’ he told the FBI.
Lieber was recruited to the Thousand Talents Plan – a strategy devised by Xi Jinping’s Communist Party to gain science and technology secrets from top experts (pictured: Xi visiting Paris in 2019)
Prosecutors say Lieber was pledged $1.5 million to set up a joint Harvard-Wuhan research lab at the Chinese university, but failed to tell Harvard about the agreement.
Lieber claimed he had little contact with the Wuhan university after around 2016.
He was shown another e-mail by agents in which he told a professor in China that he was not going to share information about their work together with Harvard or the US government.
‘You’re right, it was wrong,’ Lieber told agents. ‘I was afraid of being arrested, like I am right now.’
Prosecutors also allege Lieber was promised up to $1.5 million to establish a joint Harvard-Wuhan research lab at the Chinese university, but failed to disclose the arrangement to Harvard.
Lieber told the agents he didn’t have much interaction with the Wuhan university after 2016
Harvard had placed Lieber on ‘indefinite’ paid leave in January and said it was cooperating with the authorities, as well as conducting its own review of the misconduct.
Harvard University nanotechnology professor Lieber arrives at court on Tuesday
Lieber’s defense attorney Marc Mukasey had argued that prosecutors lacked proof of the charges.
He maintained that investigators didn’t keep any record of their interviews with Lieber prior to his arrest.
He argued that prosecutors would be unable to prove that Lieber acted ‘knowingly, intentionally, or willfully, or that he made any material false statement.’
Mukasey also stressed Lieber wasn’t charged with illegally transferring any technology or proprietary information to China.
The case is among the highest profile to come from the U.S. Department of Justice’s so-called ‘China Initiative.’
The effort launched in 2018 to curb economic espionage from China has faced criticism that it harms academic research and amounts to racial profiling of Chinese researchers.
Hundreds of faculty members at Stanford, Yale, Berkeley, Princeton, Temple and other prominent colleges have signed onto letters to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland calling on him to end the initiative.
The academics say the effort compromises the nation’s competitiveness in research and technology and has had a chilling effect on recruiting foreign scholars.
The letters also complain the investigations have disproportionally targeted researchers of Chinese origin.