A jury in Boston today found Harvard University chemistry professor Charles Lieber guilty of lying to federal agencies about his research ties to a Chinese university.
The unanimous verdict came barely 3 hours after closing arguments in the case, part of the U.S. government’s 3-year-old China Initiative that has targeted some 2 dozen academic scientists with ties to Chinese institutions. It is the second such case to have gone to a trial: In September, a federal judge acquitted Anming Hu, a former professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, of charges he had defrauded NASA by not disclosing his ties to another Chinese university. (In other cases, defendants have negotiated plea deals that included prison sentences of varying lengths or prosecutors have dropped charges.)
Lieber was convicted of concealing his links to a Chinese foreign talent program in reporting his sources of support to the Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which have funded his research. It is not illegal for academics working in the United States to receive foreign support, but federal rules require it to be reported. He was also found guilty of failing to report income from his participation in that program when filing his federal income tax forms, as well as failing to disclose a Chinese bank account used to pay him.
The case against Lieber involved his interactions with Wuhan University of Technology (WUT). In late 2011, according to the government, Lieber agreed to become a “strategic scientist” at WUT and lead a newly created “WUT-Harvard joint nano key laboratory” there. Several months later, according to the government, Lieber agreed to join a prestigious Chinese foreign talent recruitment program. Together, prosecutors say, the new positions provided him with a monthly salary of up to $50,000, $150,000 in living expenses, and $1.74 million over 3 years in research funding.
Harvard didn’t learn about the deals until 2015, the government says. (An institution, not an individual scientist, is officially the recipient of a federal grant and must certify that all the terms of an award have been met.) In April 2018, according to the government, Lieber told DOD “he had never been asked to participate” in the foreign talents program, called Thousand Talents. Several months later, prosecutors said Harvard told NIH that “Dr. Lieber has represented that he is not and has never been a participant” in a Chinese-sponsored talents program. The government argued that both assertions were false.
Lieber did not testify in his own defense, which is common in such cases. But government prosecutors built their case around a 3-hour interview held shortly after he was arrested on 28 January 2020. In his closing argument, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Casey said the interview showed Lieber was deliberately hiding information.
“Go back and listen to the defendant’s interview,” Casey said, according to tweets from Brandon Kingdollar, senior reporter for The Harvard Crimson, who was covering the trial. “He knows that he’s required to report the money, and he knows that he did not report the money.” Referring to a letter Harvard sent NIH affirming that Lieber had complied with its rules, Casey told the jury: “The important thing to remember is that the defendant reviewed and approved that letter 2 days before it went out the door.”
Casey also provided the jury with what he said was Lieber’s motive. “He was actively lying to get nominated for the Nobel Prize,” Casey asserted, according to Kingdollar’s tweets. Casey added that Lieber also wanted to ensure he continued to receive federal funding.
Lieber’s attorney, Marc Mukasey, had argued the government didn’t have sufficient evidence to find his client guilty, Kingdollar tweeted. Referring to a Chinese scientist alleged to have arranged for Lieber’s participation in the WUT program, Mukasey told the jury: “Their case is made up of three [sic] weak links. The mystery man, [Liqiang] Mai. A draft document that they call a contract. … Isn’t it troubling that [Mai] never set foot in this courtroom? That the government’s star witness is a mystery man, with an agenda that probably nobody knows?”
Mukasey also attacked the government’s claim that Lieber had actually signed up for the program, according to Kingdollar’s tweets. “Isn’t it troubling that no one in this court has explained what the Thousand Talents Program is, and who’s in it?” Mukasey asked.
Mukasey also disputed the government’s claim that Harvard officials blindly accepted what Lieber had told them in writing back to NIH. “There is no one that causes Harvard to do anything that Harvard doesn’t want to do,” Mukasey said.
Mukasey indicated he will file a motion for acquittal, according to tweets from Chris Villani, senior Boston court reporter for Law360, who covered the trial. “We respect the jury’s verdict but will keep fighting,” Mukasey said in a statement, according to Villani.
With the verdict in, U.S. District Judge Rya Zobel must now determine what sentence to hand down. The charges come with a maximum of 5 years in prison, and a $250,000 fine. Zobel will use federal sentencing guidelines relating to Lieber’s history in deciding whether to lessen those penalties.