A criminal trial of Charles M. Lieber, a chemistry professor at Harvard University, is scheduled to begin Dec. 14 at a federal court in Boston. Lieber faces two felony charges for making false statements to government investigators and four felony charges for tax-related offenses, including not disclosing a foreign bank account and failing to report income from Wuhan University of Technology (WUT). Lieber pleaded not guilty to all charges. Check here for daily updates and key information from C&EN reporters in the courtroom.
December 21, 2021 | 6:05 PM EST
After 2 hours and 45 minutes of deliberation, the jury found Lieber guilty on all counts. Lieber did not appear to show any emotion in reaction to the verdict. The judge did not set a date for sentencing.
Lieber is the first academic researcher prosecuted under the China Initiative to be found guilty by a jury. —Bethany Halford
December 21, 2021 | 3:45 PM EST
The prosecution called its final witness, Sarah Axelrod, on Dec. 21. Axelrod is Harvard University's assistant vice president at the office of sponsored programs. Her office is responsible for reviewing grant proposals.
Assistant US Attorney Jason Casey asked Axelrod to explain the documents that all principal investigators sign when they submit a grant proposal, noting that the documents include a section where investigators certify that all the information in the proposal is true, complete, and accurate to the best of their knowledge, and that investigators may face criminal, civil, or administrative penalties if the information is not. The prosecution also showed two grant proposals Lieber signed to that effect, one from 2008 and one from 2013.
On cross-examination, defense attorney Torrey Young asked Axelrod if there was any evidence to suggest that Lieber had seen those documents since 2008 and 2013, and Axelrod said there was not.
Following Axelrod’s testimony, the prosecution rested its case.
The defense called a lone witness, Anqi Zhang, who was a PhD student in Lieber’s lab from 2014 to 2020. Zhang is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University. Defense attorney Catherine Deist asked Zhang to describe the Lieber laboratory and its research. Zhang, who is originally from China, testified she was one of many foreign students and postdocs in the lab, including other researchers from Canada, China, Israel, Mexico, and Turkey. Zhang also explained that the goal of research in the Lieber lab was to make more accurate recordings of signals in the brain. Zhang said that she was in the lab 7 days a week and that Lieber normally worked 6 days a week from 6 am to about 7 pm each day.
Zhang testified that she did not work with researchers who were based in China and did not collaborate with foreign universities. Deist also asked her about research at Wuhan University of Technology (WUT), which allegedly recruited Lieber into China’s Thousand Talents Program (TTP). Zhang said that WUT focuses on nanotechnology in batteries, research she said does not overlap with research in the Lieber lab.
Zhang said she knew that Lieber was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in 2015. “I remember around 2018 he became really sick,” Zhang said. “I noticed that he was not in the lab very often,” and was slow to reply to email and write papers, she said. She also said Lieber does not know or speak Chinese.
On cross examination, assistant US attorney J.R. Drabick asked Zhang about affiliations that scientists list on their publications. Drabick pointed out that in one publication, Lieber lists an affiliation with WUT.
The defense then rested its case.
Assistant US Attorney Jason Casey gave the prosecution’s closing argument. He reiterated that the case was about false statements made to the US Department of Defense (DOD) and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), failure to disclose income on tax returns, and failure to report a foreign bank account.
Casey said it was an indisputable fact that Lieber had an account at Chinese bank ICBC. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) found the account opening forms on Lieber’s desk next to his passport, Casey said. Prosecutors also presented many emails between Lieber and people at WUT discussing the account. Casey pointed to the statement Lieber made to the FBI following his arrest on Jan. 28, 2020, when Lieber said he had approximately $200,000 in that account—well over the $10,000 that triggers mandatory reporting of the account. “His ICBC account in China was a place for him to park money,” Casey said, so Lieber wouldn’t have to pay taxes on it. Filing the appropriate paperwork on that account “would have completely eviscerated his plans to keep that money secret,” Casey said.
Casey then pointed to video of the FBI questioning Lieber and said it was proof that Lieber had income from WUT that he didn’t report on his taxes in 2013 and 2014. “He knew that was a problem. How do you know that? Because the defendant said so” to the FBI, Casey said to the jury.
Casey outlined the false statement charges, noting that Lieber said in a 2018 interview with Harvard officials that he had been asked to participate in the TTP but had declined because of the time commitments. “The defendant caused Harvard to tell NIH that he had never been a participant in the Thousand talents program. That statement was false,” Casey said. Earlier in 2018, Casey said, Lieber told DOD investigators he had never been asked to participate in the TTP and said he didn’t know how China categorized him.
The jury might wonder why Lieber would lie, Casey said. He said that Lieber had big plans with WUT that were scuttled when Harvard asked Lieber to make sure WUT stopped using Harvard’s name in connection with its nanotechnology laboratory. Lieber, Casey said, “wanted to win the Nobel Prize. He wanted to be recognized for what he’d done” for science. Casey said that by linking up with WUT, Lieber would accomplish those things. But after the trademark dispute between Harvard and WUT arose, Casey said Lieber lied to investigators and to officials at Harvard because if he told the truth about his activities at WUT, his career and his grant funding would be on the line.
Marc Mukasey gave the closing argument for the defense. “The proof on every charge in this case is missing,” he said. “Without these critical items of proof, without the evidence that’s missing, the government cannot prove the charges in this case beyond a reasonable doubt.” Mukasey said the prosecution’s case rested on three weak links—Liqiang Mai, who did not testify at the trial and Mukasey described as a “mystery man”; an unsigned contract that was emailed to Lieber; and video clips from the FBI’s interview with Lieber.
Mukasey said that Mai, a WUT professor who formerly worked in Lieber’s lab, was of little consequence to Lieber. And while the jury saw many emails from Mai, they are just a tiny fraction of the 90,000 emails recovered from Lieber’s email account. “Isn’t it troubling that nobody spoke to Liquang Mai?” Mukasey asked.
Mukasey then spoke about the contract that the prosecution said was given to Lieber to sign as part of the TTP. “This thing they call a contract - does this seem in any way reliable to you as common sense people?” Mukasey asked. “It looks like an official piece of trash,” he added, pointing out that it’s not on any letterhead, has a spelling error on the first line of the first page, and has no page numbers. Mukasey also noted that there are no signatures, no official seal, and no start date. Mukasey noted the document addresses living expenses in Wuhan, and Lieber lives in Lexington, Massachusetts. “This document isn’t up to the level of a kid’s first grade homework,” Mukasey said. “That’s got to give you serious doubt.”
Finally, Mukasey said, the video clips from the 2020 FBI interview “are really just a muddled mess of misunderstandings and mistakes.” He pointed out that during the interview, Lieber had not been to Wuhan in 6 years and the only thing that Lieber was thinking about with regard to WUT was the trademark issue, which is not a criminal offense.
Mukasey noted that FBI special agent Kara Spice had been involved in the case for one day when she questioned Lieber in 2020 and began confronting him with emails from 8 and 9 years prior. “That’s not an interview,” Mukasey said. “That’s a game of gotcha and an email ambush.” No one, Mukasey said, wants to answer questions about email from 9 years ago.
Mukasey then addressed the charges against Lieber, saying that the prosecution doesn’t actually have the false statement they’ve accused Lieber of making, just some inconsistent notes. “It makes no sense that Charlie would have intentionally lied about being asked to be in the Thousand Talents Program.”
With regard to causing Harvard to make a false statement, Mukasey said “there is nobody that causes Harvard to do anything that Harvard doesn’t want to do,” and that Harvard’s response to the NIH did not include Lieber’s full statement because it was edited by lawyers.
With regard to the charges of failing to report income on his taxes and a foreign bank account, Mukasey said that prosecutors didn’t have any proof.
Mukasey said that the meetings with the DOD and Harvard in which Lieber allegedly lied lasted 45 minutes each, and the discussion of the TTP at those meetings lasted only a couple of seconds. But those few secondsled to this federal case. “The world’s greatest nanoscientist is facing multiple felonies over a discussion that lasted a nanosecond,” Mukasey said. He asked the jury not to rush through deliberation and to remember that Lieber is presumed innocent.
Finally, Casey gave one final argument for the prosecution and asked the jury to look at the video clips again. “Use your common sense when you’re deliberating,” Casey said.
Judge Rya Zobel then gave instructions to the jury, which began deliberating —Bethany Halford
December 20, 2021 | 5:30 PM EST
The prosecution continued to call witnesses on Dec. 20. The day began with defense attorney Marc Mukasey carrying through his cross-examination of US Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent Kara Spice, who interviewed Lieber after he was arrested in January 2020.
In particular, Mukasey asked Spice about a document that the government alleges is a contract for China’s Thousand Talents Program (TTP), part of China’s effort to recruit scientific talent. Spice confirmed that the document, which comes from an email to Lieber, was unsigned and had no official seal or stamp. Spice also confirmed that she had never seen an executed version of the document. And Spice testified that she did not know if Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) professor Liqiang Mai, who sent the email, was authorized to send official correspondence from WUT or the TTP. Mai formerly worked in Lieber’s lab; he has not testified at the trial.
Next, Assistant US Attorney J.R. Drabick called Amy Mousseau to testify. Mousseau is a special agent who investigates fraud and corruption with the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, an arm of the US Department of Defense. Mousseau testified about interviewing Lieber in person on April 24, 2018—the interview in which Lieber allegedly made the false statements that led to one of the charges against him. She said that although she planned to ask Lieber about his participation in the TTP, she did not share that information with him beforehand because she wanted to see his reaction when asked about the program. Mousseau said that when she did ask about the TTP, Lieber told her he did not know how China classified him.
On cross examination, defense attorney Mukasey asked Mousseau about notes taken by one of her colleagues during the interview. He pointed out that the notes do not say that Lieber denied participation in the TTP.
The next witness for the prosecution was Michael Lauer, deputy director for extramural research for the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). He testified that the agency had been informed by the FBI in 2018 that several researchers with NIH funding may have also received funding from foreign governments, in particular China, that might conflict with the agency’s rules. Lieber was one of the people the FBI flagged for the NIH.
Lauer said the NIH sent a letter to Harvard University, asking the school to investigate. This is the basis for the second charge of making false statements in the indictment against Lieber. Lauer explained that Harvard sent a letter back to the NIH—after Harvard grant administrator Jennifer Ponting and colleagues spoke with Lieber—stating that Lieber was not and never had been a member of the TTP. The NIH was satisfied with the response, Lauer testified. Lauer said that if the NIH knew Lieber had participated in the TTP in the past, “we would have had lots of questions, and we probably would have restricted funds on active grants.” The NIH was broadly concerned that researchers not be paid twice for the same work, Lauer testified.
On cross examination by defense attorney Torrey Young, Lauer said that the NIH supports collaborative research, including international collaborations with China. Lauer also said that the NIH did not prohibit researchers from participating in the TTP.
The prosecution’s next witness was Carl Goodman, a certified public accountant who prepared joint tax returns for and gave financial advice to Lieber and his wife, Jennifer Lieber, for several years. In particular, Goodman was the Liebers’ accountant in 2013 and 2014, when Lieber allegedly did not disclose foreign income on his taxes. Goodman said that he corresponded with Jennifer Lieber and never met her husband. Goodman testified that the Liebers did not disclose any income from China in 2013 and 2014, nor did he know of any bank account that Lieber kept in China.
When questioned by defense attorney Catherine Deist, Goodman said the Liebers were conservative investors and that they never contacted him about making a large purchase. Deist also noted that the Liebers’ 2015 tax return listed $11,000 from China.
The prosecution’s final witness of the day was Colleen Ranahan, a revenue agent in the US Internal Revenue Service’s special enforcement program. Ranahan reviewed the Liebers’ tax returns and did a hypothetical calculation as to how much more the Liebers would have owed if they had received extra income in 2013 and 2014. Ranahan estimated that if Lieber had reported an extra $20,000 in income in 2013, the couple would have owed $7,600 more in taxes than they paid that year. If Lieber earned an extra $40,000 in 2014, the couple would have owed an additional $15,200 in taxes.
The prosecution said it will call its final witness on Dec. 21. —Bethany Halford
December 17, 2021 | 5:10 PM EST
Assistant US attorney Jason Casey continued to have Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent Kara Spice read email exchanges from 2013 to 2019. Many of the emails were between Lieber and Liqiang Mai, a Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) professor who previously worked in Lieber’s lab.
Several of the earlier emails discussed details of which funding agencies to acknowledge in publications, WUT PhD students coming to work in Lieber’s lab at Harvard, and how those students would be funded. Spice also read several emails from 2014 between Lieber and a woman at WUT about his bank account in China.
Spice also read later emails in which Mai asked Lieber to participate in a program for top-level foreign experts. Lieber declined the invitation and asked not to be included in any arrangements with WUT going forward.
Spice then read an April 20, 2018 email from a special agent of the US Department of Defense (DOD) asking to set up a meeting with Lieber, as well as an email Lieber sent to a colleague three days later saying he was worried about DOD’s request.
Spice also read emails from December 2018 in which Lieber asked a former trainee to see if WUT was still using his name on its web pages. That exchange came after the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) contacted Harvard to say it was concerned that Lieber had not properly disclosed his foreign collaborations as required by NIH funding rules. Lieber told the trainee that the NIH wanted to end his funding and was asking him to repay the grants he received from the last three years.
The prosecution then played video clips from an interview Spice and another FBI agent conducted with Lieber after his arrest on Jan. 28, 2020. Lieber signed a form waiving his Miranda rights, but he also said to the FBI agents, “I guess, I think probably I should have ah, an attorney.” Judge Rya Zobel ruled in October that Lieber’s statement was not sufficiently unambiguous to constitute an invocation of his right to counsel.”
In the video clips, Lieber told investigators that he had never been to China for more than a week each year. He said WUT only paid him for airfare to and from China, and that he wasn’t sure if he was in the Thousand Talents Program (TTP). He added that he thought the program required him to spend at least 3 months in China.
Lieber was shown documents during the videoed interview, including the unsigned contract for the Thousand Talents Program. “I guess that’s what I signed,” he said. “I should pay more attention to what I’m signing.” The agents asked Lieber about the payments outlined in the contract and Lieber said that maybe there is a bank account in China but he does not have access to it and doesn’t remember the name of the bank. “I don’t know if this account really exists in China,” he said. He said he’d received honoraria from giving talks in China but has never taken $50,000 and brought it home. Then he recalled having a bank card and once checking his account balance, which was about $200,000, at an ATM in China.
The video clips showed the agents asking Lieber why WUT wanted to use his name. He replied, “I guess for better or for worse I helped them raise the level of their university really significantly in China.” Lieber then added, “What looks bad for me is that I’ve taken a lot of money.” Lieber went on to say, “I want to be recognized for what I’ve done” and that “every scientist wants to win a Nobel Prize.” He explained that he wanted to train others around the world to work on nanowire science. “The more people who use it in different technologies, the better it is for me,” he said, adding that he was not motivated by money.
When asked in the videoed interview about the cash he requested in emails, Lieber said to the FBI agents, “I guess I brought it back,” estimating he may have carried as much as $20,000 back with him. He then said, “No, if I brought it back, I didn’t declare it and that’s illegal.” When asked where he kept the money, Lieber said he probably gave it to his wife.
The video clips also showed the FBI agents asking how much cash Lieber was given in China. Lieber said, “Maybe it’s more than $50,000. I don’t know.” He added, “It could be more than $50,000, but I honestly think it must be less than $100,000” because he would remember a larger amount. The agents then asked Lieber about his bank account again, “I didn’t need it and I guess we didn’t believe it was the right thing” to take the money, Lieber said.
The agents then asked Lieber about his interview with DOD agents. He said, “I don’t think I did anything wrong, except I shouldn’t have had an agreement and accepted money.” He added, “It was wrong. What can I say? It was wrong.” He then told the agents, “I was scared of being arrested, like I am now.” Later, he said, “It looks like I was very dishonest with investigators from the Department of Defense. I wasn’t completely transparent by any stretch of the imagination.”
Lieber’s attorney Marc Mukasey then cross-examined Spice. He asked her if she was aware during her interview that Harvard had a dispute with Lieber over the use of Harvard’s name in China. She told Mukasey that she did not know this when she questioned Lieber. He asked her about a document found in Lieber’s home regarding opening an account with Chinese bank ICBC. Mukasey pointed out that much of the document was blank and that as of 2019 the account showed that it had no money in it.
Upon further questioning from Mukasey, Spice said she located no bank statements or transaction records for ICBC. “You’ve seen no evidence that $1 was ever deposited in this account?” Mukasey asked. Spice replied, “Correct.”
Mukasey asked Spice if she ever spoke to payroll or accounting representatives at WUT and whether she ever saw pay stubs to Lieber from WUT or the Thousand Talents Program (TTP). She said she did not. Nor did she contact anyone who was an agent for the TTP. Then Mukasey asked if it was legal for someone residing in the US to participate in the TTP. Spice said that neither the TTP nor associating with it is illegal.
Mukasey will continue his cross-examination of Spice on Monday. —Bethany Halford
December 16, 2021 | 3:20 PM EST
Renee Donlon, who did administrative work for Lieber from October 2012 through mid-2017, continued her testimony for the prosecution on Dec. 16. Yesterday, Donlon was introduced briefly and she described her work managing Lieber’s travel and calendar before court recessed for the day. Today, Donlon testified that she arranged several trips to Wuhan for Lieber and reviewed the itineraries for three trips in 2014. Donlon also said that on one occasion she attempted to use a Chinese bank card in Lieber’s name to pay for a change fee on a flight, but the charge did not go through.
Stephanie Guaba, one of Lieber’s defense attorneys, pointed out on cross examination that according to the travel itineraries Donlon prepared, Lieber was in Wuhan for less than 24 hours on two of the trips. On the third trip, he was in Wuhan for 37 hours. Guaba also asked Donlon if she had ever successfully made a purchase with Lieber’s Chinese bank card, and Donlon said she had not.
Next, the prosecution called US Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent Kara Spice to testify. Spice was involved in Lieber’s arrest and subsequent questioning on Jan. 28, 2020. Assistant US Attorney Jason Casey asked Spice about email exchanges between Liqiang Mai, who worked in Lieber’s lab from 2008 to 2011. According to Mai’s website, he has been a professor at Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) since 2004 and is now dean of WUT’s School of Materials Science and Engineering.
Casey had Spice read from many email exchanges between Lieber and Mai from 2011, 2012, and 2013 regarding Lieber’s role in establishing a nanotechnology lab at WUT. The prosecution also presented what it described as a contract for Lieber’s participation in the Thousand Talents Program. Lieber’s defense attorney Marc Mukasey called the document “an unsigned piece of paper.”
Mukasey also objected to using the emails as evidence because Mai isn’t in court to be questioned. Prosecutors argued that the emails show Lieber’s “state of mind.” Judge Rya Zobel allowed the jury to see most of the emails.
The prosecution also brought up an email Lieber sent to his wife, Jennifer Lieber, on how to handle the money he was paid for his work at WUT, which the school offered to either pay in cash or deposit in a Chinese bank account. Lieber expressed concern at carrying cash but was unsure of the tax implications of setting up a bank account in China. Another email Lieber sent suggests that he asked WUT to split the money so that he received half in cash and the other half would be deposited in a bank account in China.
Casey said the prosecution will continue to question Spice tomorrow. —Bethany Halford
December 15, 2021 | 3:30 PM EST
Prosecution and defense attorneys gave their opening statements on Dec. 15 to a jury of 12 people and 2 alternate jurors. The crowded courtroom included some of Lieber’s former lab members, one of whom wore a hooded sweatshirt printed with Lieber’s likeness.
Assistant US Attorney J. R. Drabick outlined the government’s case, saying that it was about false statements, false tax returns, and a hidden bank account. Drabick said that Lieber participated in a Chinese recruiting program known as the Thousand Talents Program (TTP). Participating in the program is not a crime, but the government alleges that Lieber falsely stated that he was not involved with the TTP when he spoke with investigators for the US Department of Defense. Making false statements to government investigators is illegal.
In addition, “Evidence will show the defendant was paid tens of thousands of dollars for his work,” at Wuhan University of Technology (WUT) up to $50,000 per month, half in cash and half in a Chinese bank account set up for him, Drabick said. Lieber allegedly did not report that income on his tax returns in 2013 and 2014, nor did he report the foreign bank account, as required by law. Drabick said that Lieber wanted WUT to nominate him for a Nobel Prize in return for his work with the school.
According to the Nobel Prize website, “Each year, thousands of members of academies, university professors, scientists, previous Nobel Prize laureates and members of parliamentary assemblies and others, are asked to submit candidates for the Nobel Prizes for the coming year.”
Marc Mukasey, one of Lieber’s defense attorneys, began his opening statement by saying, “this case is not about Charlie and China. This case is about careless conduct in Cambridge”—meaning careless conduct of Harvard and federal officials. Mukasey said that the government does not have Lieber’s false statements. Without those statements, Mukasey said, “You have no case. And the government doesn’t have any of it.” Instead, he said, they have “a heaping pile” of emails that are up to 10 years old, phantom witnesses in China, and a “hot mess” of documents from China.
The prosecution called three witnesses following opening statements. The first was Jennifer Ponting, who worked for Harvard managing grants in 2018. That’s when the US National Institutes of Health wrote to the school to express concern that Harvard was not in compliance with disclosure regulations with regard to reporting Lieber’s foreign collaborations. Ponting testified that Lieber told her he was not a member of the TTP and that Harvard responded to NIH stating that was the case.
Under cross-examination by defense attorney Torrey Young, Ponting said that she did not take notes during her conversation with Lieber. Another Harvard colleague did, and those notes suggest that Ponting and her colleague did not pass Lieber’s complete statements to the NIH.
The government’s second witness was Jeremy Bloxham, who was Harvard’s Dean of Science from 2007 to 2018. Bloxham testified about concerns he had in 2014 regarding a lab at WUT that was using Harvard’s name without permission. Bloxham testified that he spoke and emailed with Lieber and felt the matter was resolved at that time.
Defense attorney Catherine Deist cross-examined Bloxham, who told her that Harvard permits its faculty to collaborate with institutions in China and that he did not ask Lieber about the TTP.
Finally, the government called Renee Donlon, who worked for Lieber performing administrative duties from 2012 to 2017. Donlon briefly described her duties working for Lieber before court recessed for the day. Likely the prosecution will pick up with additional questions for Donlon tomorrow. —Bethany Halford
December 14, 2021 | 1:55 PM EST
The criminal case United States of America v. Charles Lieber began this morning with jury selection. Lieber appeared in court wearing a charcoal gray suit and a surgical mask.
At the start of the day, Judge Rya W. Zobel expressed concern that the case had generated some publicity: Lieber’s attorney Marc Mukasey noted that the story was on the front page of the Boston Globe this morning, and Zobel said she will ask potential jurors if they have heard about the case from the news.
Zobel also said she would explain to the jury pool that this is a criminal case and will introduce the lawyers to the jury pool. She said she will point out the defendant and explain the charges against him.
In addition, Zobel said she will ask potential jurors if they have experience with the US criminal justice system or the Internal Revenue Service that would make it difficult to be fair in this case. She said she will ask potential jurors if they have feelings about China or the Chinese government that would prevent them from being impartial and if they read or speak Chinese because some of the evidence will be documents in Chinese. Zobel said she will instruct the jury that the government has to prove their case and Lieber does not have to testify. She said she anticipates that many potential jurors will say they have holiday travel plans that will make it difficult to serve on the jury.
However, Zobel did not allow members of the media and public to witness jury selection, telling them to leave the courtroom because of limited space and a large pool of potential jurors. Media representatives were sent to an overflow room that didn’t allow them to hear the proceedings.
The two prosecution and four defense attorneys agreed that it’s likely that all the evidence in the case will be presented by Monday, Dec. 20. Because of concerns about COVID-19 transmission, Zobel suggested that everyone in the courtroom should wear a mask except when they are speaking.
Jury selection concluded shortly after 1 p.m. The attorneys will give their opening statements tomorrow, Dec. 15. —Bethany Halford
December 13, 2021 | 2:30 PM EST
Federal authorities arrested Lieber and charged him with fraud on Jan. 28, 2020. Lieber’s lab at Harvard has received grants from the US National Institutes of Health and the US Department of Defense for more than $15 million since 2008, according to an indictment filed on July 28, 2020.
As a condition of receiving federal funding, Lieber was required to disclose any foreign affiliations and collaborations. In the indictment, the US government alleges that in 2011 Lieber became a strategic scientist for WUT and in 2012 signed a contract to be part of China’s Thousand Talents Program, a state-run effort to recruit scientists from other countries. The government claims that Lieber lied about these affiliations during interviews with authorities in 2018 and 2019.
The July 28, 2020, indictment also added the tax-related charges. These stem from Lieber’s arrangement with WUT, in which the school allegedly paid him a monthly salary of up to $50,000 and living expenses of up to $150,000. According to the indictment, Lieber did not declare this income on his 2013 and 2014 federal tax filings, nor did he disclose a bank account he held in China.
Lieber’s attorneys pushed to hold his trial as soon as possible because Lieber has cancer of the lymphatic system. If his current treatment fails to slow the cancer’s progression or its side effects become too severe, his new treatment options require hospitalization and isolation, his attorneys told the court in an Oct. 12 letter.
Lieber is one of 148 people charged under the US Department of Justice’s China Initiative, according to an analysis by MIT Technology Review. The initiative, which began in 2018 under former president Donald J. Trump, was established to combat economic espionage from China. Critics of the program say that many of the charges brought against academics under the China Initiative have nothing to do with espionage and instead focus on failing to report affiliations or income, as with the Lieber case. Critics also note that most of the individuals charged under the China Initiative are of Asian descent.
“When we created DOJ’s China Initiative in 2018, we were responding to long-term concerns about economic espionage involving an emerging geopolitical rival,” wrote Andrew E. Lelling, former US Attorney for the district of Massachusetts, on LinkedIn on Dec. 3. “This was sound policy, but the Initiative has drifted and, in some significant ways, lost its focus. DOJ should revamp, and shut down, parts of the program, to avoid needlessly chilling scientific and business collaborations with Chinese partners.”
Of the 23 US academic scientists who have been charged under the China Initiative, only one has gone to trial. Anming Hu, a former tenured professor of nanotechnology at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, allegedly failed to disclose ties to a Chinese university to NASA, which provided funding for his research. After a jury was unable to reach a verdict in the case, US District Judge Thomas A. Varlan declared a mistrial and then acquitted Hu.
“The Court concludes that, even viewing all the evidence in the light most favorable to the government, no rational jury could conclude that defendant acted with a scheme to defraud NASA in failing to disclose his affiliation with [Beijing University of Technology] to UTK,” Varlan wrote in his opinion.
Lieber’s trial will be the next test of the China Initiative. If convicted on the charges of making false statements, Lieber could be sentenced to up to 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each of the two charges. Each of the two charges of filing false tax returns carries a sentence of up to 3 years in prison and a $100,000 fine, and each of the two charges of failing to disclose a foreign bank account carries a sentence of up to 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. —Bethany Halford