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Charles Lieber sues Harvard to recoup legal costs

Chemistry professor facing federal charges claims the university should cover the cost of his defense

by Bethany Halford
October 14, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 40


Charles Lieber walking with news microphones pointed at him.
Credit: Katherine Taylor/Reuters/Newscom
Charles Lieber leaving the federal courthouse in Boston after he was released on bail in January

Nanoscientist Charles M. Lieber, who faces charges that he lied to US federal authorities and did not declare foreign income or a foreign bank account to the Internal Revenue Service, is suing to require his employer Harvard University to cover the costs of his defense in the criminal case. Lieber, the former chair of Harvard’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department, has pleaded not guilty to the charges and claims that Harvard’s indemnification policy requires the university to cover the cost of his defense. Lieber filed the complaint on Oct. 9 in Massachusetts Superior Court.

An indemnification policy requires an employer to compensate or defend employees who face legal liability for doing their job. Such policies are common. According to his complaint, Lieber requested indemnification from Harvard in March. In May and July, Harvard’s executive vice president Katherine N. Lapp denied the request in letters alleging, among other things, that Lieber did not act in good faith.

Lieber’s complaint states that his defense is complex, with allegations that go back at least 7 years, witnesses in China, and thousands of pages of documents, many of which may require Mandarin-to-English translation. Lieber’s attorney Marc Mukasey declined to say how much the legal defense would cost, but estimates in the complaint suggest it could range from hundreds of thousands of dollars to more than $1 million. “Payment of all of the costs of a robust defense would substantially, if not completely deplete Professor Lieber’s resources,” the complaint states.

Harvard declined to comment on the pending litigation. A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 22. A hearing on the federal criminal case is scheduled for Oct. 16.



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