Federal fraud charges crumble in cases against scientists with China ties

9/26/2022 11:30:00 PM

Civil rights groups say the U.S. government’s China Initiative has discriminated against Asian-born scientists.

Civil rights groups say the U.S. government’s China Initiative has discriminated against Asian-born scientists.

Judges on China Initiative cases reject claims that defendants defrauded agencies by not disclosing foreign connections

The U.S. government overplayed its hand in prosecuting U.S. academics under the controversial China Initiative, three federal courts ruled last week.In separate cases, attorneys for the Department of Justice (DOJ) had maintained that chemist Franklin Tao, materials scientist Zhengdong Cheng, and mathematician Mingqing Xiao jeopardized the nation’s security and defrauded the government by deliberately hiding ties to Chinese institutions from the federal agencies funding their research. But last week, judges in Kansas, Texas, and Illinois either invalidated some of the most serious charges or handed down relatively lenient sentences for lesser violations. One judge overturned Tao’s fraud convictions, another accepted a plea deal that dropped nine fraud charges against Cheng, and the third sentenced Xiao to probation rather than prison for failing to report a foreign bank account.

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S. government overplayed its hand in prosecuting U. “This brief provides a rare and important opportunity for federal Supreme Court justices to receive direct input from their peers who sit on state supreme courts,” Professor Caminker said.S. It would make it harder for us to confirm judges, it would make it harder for us to confirm executive appointments in each administration,” she continued. academics under the controversial China Initiative, three federal courts ruled last week.” The independent state legislature theory is based on a literal reading of two similar provisions of the U. In separate cases, attorneys for the Department of Justice (DOJ) had maintained that chemist Franklin Tao, materials scientist Zhengdong Cheng, and mathematician Mingqing Xiao jeopardized the nation’s security and defrauded the government by deliberately hiding ties to Chinese institutions from the federal agencies funding their research. Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.

But last week, judges in Kansas, Texas, and Illinois either invalidated some of the most serious charges or handed down relatively lenient sentences for lesser violations. Constitution.” The Arizona senator also railed against Democrats and opponents of the filibuster for wanting to “give into” their “short-term desires” like passing. One judge overturned Tao’s fraud convictions, another accepted a plea deal that dropped nine fraud charges against Cheng, and the third sentenced Xiao to probation rather than prison for failing to report a foreign bank account. Legal experts say DOJ’s theory of what constitutes defrauding a funding agency has turned out to be untenable.” That means, North Carolina Republicans argued, that state legislatures have sole responsibility among state institutions for drawing congressional districts and that state courts have no role to play in applying their states’ constitutions. “These [results] show that the government’s [underlying] theory of the case was questionable,” says Margaret Lewis, a law professor and China scholar at Seton Hall University who doubts prosecutors should have pursued criminal convictions for what are often treated as civil or administrative violations. “The primary duty of a prosecutor is to obtain justice, not a conviction,” she says.” Texas and a dozen other states led by Republicans filed a brief supporting the North Carolina lawmakers.

DOJ issued a statement after Xiao was sentenced saying the department had “recommended a sentence it believed appropriate under the law and facts of the case. [But] we respect the court’s decision. The Conference of Chief Justices’ brief said that reading was too cramped.” It declined to comment on the two other cases. Launched by then-President Donald Trump’s administration in 2018 to thwart economic espionage, the China Initiative led to charges against some two dozen academic scientists.” Chief Justice Hecht said the U. Most were of Chinese ancestry, which civil rights groups said suggested anti-Asian bias.

The initiative had a mixed track record: Although prosecutors won guilty pleas and prison terms for some defendants, they later dropped charges against many others or failed to win jury verdicts. Supreme Court’s ruling in the case was unlikely to be limited to redistricting and could open the floodgates for all sorts of election challenges in federal courts. Last week brought new setbacks for DOJ. In the case of Tao, who is on unpaid leave from the University of Kansas, Lawrence, a jury in April found him guilty on one count of making a false statement by filing incomplete paperwork and three counts of fraud, while acquitting him of four related fraud charges. “So that’s mail-in ballots, what it takes to register, what ID you have to show, how late the polls are open, how the ballots are counted, who gets to sit and watch when they do. Prosecutors had argued that Tao committed fraud by hiding his work with Chinese institutions from his university and two funding agencies: the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. But last week U.” The case, he added, “will profoundly affect both the state and the federal courts.

S. District Judge Julie Robinson took the unusual step of throwing out the three fraud convictions. In her 61-page decision, Robinson noted that the U.S. Supreme Court has held fraud requires evidence that the defendant deprived someone of money or property.

But Tao had in fact delivered the research he had promised to his funders and to his university, she wrote. “The evidence presented at trial showed that all three received what they bargained for.” “In any other case, the government would never have thought to bring the fraud charge,” asserts Peter Zeidenberg, Tao’s attorney. “But when it comes to Chinese American scientists and on anything related to China, [prosecutors] haven’t applied the normal filtering process that they go through when deciding what is a meritorious case.” Tao is scheduled to be sentenced in January on the sole remaining count.

Robinson’s decision, meanwhile, echoes similar findings by judges in other China Initiative cases. In September 2021, for example, U.S. District Judge Thomas Varlan acquitted mechanical engineer Anming Hu of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, of six charges of defrauding NASA. “No rational jury could conclude that [Hu] acted with a scheme to defraud NASA by failing to disclose his affiliation” with a Chinese university, Varlan wrote in his 52-page ruling.

In April, U.S. District Judge Staci Yandle threw out two fraud charges against Xiao, a math professor at Southern Illinois University (SIU), Carbondale. A jury then acquitted him of making false statements but found him guilty of failing to disclose a foreign bank account on his tax returns. Last week, however, the judge rejected the government’s request that Xiao receive a 1-year prison sentence and a heavy fine.

Instead, she ordered Xiao to serve 1 year of probation and pay a $600 fine. Now on paid administrative leave, Xiao hopes to be reinstated by SIU. The tax charges “were more worthy of civil remedies—if they were worthy of any enforcement,” says Xiao’s lead attorney, Ryan Poscablo of Steptoe & Johnson. Cheng, a former materials scientist at Texas A&M University (TAMU), College Station, was arrested and jailed in August 2020 on charges of making false statements and nine counts of fraud relating to a NASA grant. But last week the government dropped the fraud counts.

Cheng then pleaded guilty to two counts of making false statements; he agreed to repay NASA $86,876 and pay a fine of $20,000. The two sides agreed on a prison sentence of time served; Cheng had already spent 13 months behind bars. (TAMU terminated Cheng in December 2020.) It’s not clear how many active China Initiative cases remain. In February, DOJ announced it was renaming the initiative because of the perception that the phrase has had a “chilling effect on U.

S.-based scientists of Chinese origin [and] fueled a narrative of intolerance and bias.” But Zeidenberg says he hasn’t seen any substantive change in the government’s approach to what it now calls “a strategy for countering nation-state threats” to the United States. doi: 10.1126/science.

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