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Former Harvard chemistry chair Charles Lieber is set to go to trial this week on charges of lying to the government about ties to China.

The Boston Globe/Getty Images

The jury trial of Charles Lieber, the former Harvard University chemistry department chair accused of cheating on his taxes and lying to federal investigators about his participation in a Chinese government scientific talent program, is set to begin today.

Federal prosecutors accuse Lieber of lying about his relationship with the program at the Wuhan University of Technology. A superseding indictment alleges that Lieber entered into a contract with WUT in 2012 that obligated him to perform certain work for WUT in exchange for a salary of “up to $50,000 per month” and living expenses of up to about $158,000 to be paid over the term of the three-year contract, plus roughly $1.74 million to set up a lab.

Lieber was arrested in January 2020 after officials at two federal agencies that funded his research, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense, began investigating whether he had appropriately disclosed foreign affiliations. Later that year prosecutors filed a superseding indictment in which they added tax-related charges, alleging that Lieber failed to report income from WUT on his taxes.

The trial will certainly be the most high-profile one to date for an academic prosecuted under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Justice’s controversial China Initiative, which was launched by the Trump administration in 2018 with the ostensible aim of tackling economic espionage but, in academia, has focused largely on prosecutions related to alleged college research grant fraud and, more specifically, alleged nondisclosures of Chinese affiliations or funding sources on federal grant applications.

Academic and civil rights groups have become increasingly vocal in their criticism of the initiative over the past year, raising concerns about racial profiling and what a recent study found to be a chilling effect on Chinese American scientists working at universities around the country and Chinese-American scientific exchange.

A recent analysis by MIT Technology Review found that nearly 90 percent of all individuals charged under the initiative are of Chinese heritage (though Lieber is not). The MIT Technology Review article argued that “the China Initiative has strayed far from its initial mission. Instead of focusing on economic espionage and national security, the initiative now appears to be an umbrella term for cases with almost any connection to China, whether they involve state-sponsored hackers, smugglers, or, increasingly, academics accused of failing to disclose all ties to China on grant-related forms.”

The first academic to go to trial on grant fraud related charges was Anming Hu, an engineering professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville who was accused of hiding his ties to a Chinese university from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. His trial ended with a hung jury in June. Hu was subsequently acquitted on all counts by a federal judge, who found that, contrary to prosecutors’ assertions, “no rational jury could have concluded that [Hu] had a scheme to defraud NASA in this case.”

Lieber will be the second academic charged under the China Initiative to go to trial. In a pretrial brief, federal prosecutors said they expect to prove that Lieber made “materially and intentionally false” statements to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) about his participation in the Thousand Talents Programs (TTP) through Wuhan University of Technology.

The government argues that in 2015 Lieber “deliberately [misled] Harvard about the nature and extent of his relationship with WUT by intentionally failing to disclose that he had agreed to a Thousand Talents Contract with WUT (a formal employment contract by its express terms), that he had committed Harvard to a formal academic exchange with WUT in furtherance of his TTP participation, and that his formal arrangement with WUT entitled him to significant salary and other benefits.”

“The evidence will show that, having deliberately misled Harvard in 2015, Lieber chose to perpetuate the same falsehoods—that is, to intentionally conceal the true extent of his relationship with WUT, which included his involvement in the Thousand Talents Program—to DCIS and NIH in 2018 and 2019,” the government’s pretrial brief alleges. “Had he told the truth to DCIS and NIH, Lieber almost certainly would have caused significant damage to his reputation at Harvard, risked losing his position as the chair of his department, possibly forfeited his ability to conduct federally funded research, or worse. The defendant’s contemporaneous emails support this view.”

Lieber has pleaded not guilty on all counts and says in a pretrial brief, “The government will be unable to prove, as to each and every count, that he acted knowingly, intentionally, or willfully, or that he made any material false statement.”

Lieber requested in the brief that the government be prevented from entering into evidence certain documents and testimony, including email communications that the defense argues “present serious authentication issues and hearsay problems.”

“The government intends to present a case that is centered around witnesses who are in China, and years’ worth of conduct that is not charged in the Superseding Indictment,” the pretrial brief states. “To be specific, the government’s proposed exhibit list includes at least 175 documents, comprised of approximately 123 email exchanges. Of those 123 email exchanges, approximately 93 email exchanges appear to reflect communication between Professor Lieber and an email address that cannot be attributed to any individual on the government’s witness list. Of those 93 emails exchanges, approximately 65 email exchanges reflect communications between Professor Lieber and an individual in China.”

Lieber, who is on leave with pay from Harvard, is battling lymphoma, and his lawyers have pushed for a speedy trial. In an Oct. 12 letter, his lawyers described his health status as “grave” and wrote that “Professor Lieber’s health continues to be a paramount concern.”

Lieber is also waging a civil case in Massachusetts state court, asking Harvard to pay for his legal costs and alleging that failure to do so constitutes a breach of his contract. Reuters reported that justices on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court seemed skeptical of Lieber’s arguments during a Nov. 3 hearing on the matter.

Dozens of scientists, including seven Nobel Prize winners, signed an open letter last spring supporting Lieber, whom they described as “one of the great scientists of his generation” and “a world-renowned pioneer in nanotechnology.”

The letter also questioned the charges against Lieber.

“Despite his standing in the scientific community—or perhaps because of it—he has become the target of a tragically misguided government campaign that is discouraging U.S. scientists from collaborating with peers in other countries, particularly China,” the letter states. “In so doing, is threatening not only the United States’ position as a world leader in academic research, but science itself.”

Derek Adams, a partner with the Potomac Law Group who advises colleges on issues related to potential research misconduct and nondisclosures of foreign affiliations, said he thinks the outcome of Lieber’s trial will have important implications for the future of China Initiative cases.

“If they [prosecutors] lose this one, too, I do think it’s going to increase the cries for shutting down the initiative, and it’s also going to embolden the defendants in the other cases that are out there,” said Adams, who previously worked in DOJ’s fraud division.

Adams noted the Lieber case is unlike the others in that it doesn’t involve allegations of lies or omissions on actual grant applications but instead centers on two allegedly false statements Lieber made concerning his involvement in a Chinese talent program.

“Unlike the government, the defense is not going to want to make it about a specific statement—they’re going to want to shift the focus more to the China Initiative and all the problems with the initiative and the arguable targeting of China and Chinese nationals in terms of that initiative,” Adams said. “I think they’re going to want to make it much more big-picture, and the government is going to try to keep it as streamlined as they can.”

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