In this case, the U.S. has dropped its case against a scientist at M.I.T. who was accused of hiding China links.
Gang Chen, a professor of mechanical engineering, was arrested a year ago for allegedly not telling the truth about his connections to government institutions in China.
Federal prosecutors on Thursday dropped the government’s charges against Gang Chen, a mechanical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This is a big setback for the China Initiative, a nearly three-year-old government effort to stop scientists from giving China important technology.
Chen was arrested on Jan. 14, 2021, during President Trump’s last full week in office, and charged with a type of grant fraud. He hid his affiliations with Chinese government institutions in applications for $2.7 million in grants from the US Department of Energy in 2017, according to a press report. All the charges against him were dropped.
In court on Thursday, prosecutors asked for the charges against them to be dropped because the government “can no longer meet its burden of proof.” Judge Patti B. Saris of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts agreed to let the case be dismissed just before noon.
Dr. Chen was arrested in Boston, which is a major center for scientific research, and it was on the front page. Many of Dr. Chen’s colleagues in academia were angry about it. They said that prosecutors had gone too far, blurring the line between grant disclosure violations and more serious crimes like espionage or theft of intellectual property.
The Department of Energy has told prosecutors recently that even if Dr. Chen had told them about his Chinese ties, the department would still have given him the grant money, people who know the case say.
The lawyer for Dr. Chen said, “Today is a great day.” In the end, the government agreed with what we have always said: Professor Gang Chen is not guilty. When we tried to defend ourselves, we didn’t use any legal terms. Our defense was that Gang didn’t do any of the things he was charged with. “End of.”
Those who came forward and told the government how bad they were at understanding scientific and academic collaboration are to be praised. Without them, this case would probably still be going on.
An official statement from Rachael S. Rollins, the new U.S. attorney in Boston, says that the case was dropped after prosecutors learned more about “the materiality of Professor Chen’s omissions in the context of the grant review process in this case,” which was why they did it.
In her speech, Ms. Rollins said that “We know that our charging decisions have a big impact on people’s lives.” People in my office will always be encouraged to do this kind of thorough and ongoing review at every step of a case. ” Today’s dismissal is the result of that process, and it’s in the best interest of the law to do so.
The Justice Department is reviewing the China Initiative, which was put together by the Trump administration and has been criticized for discriminating against scientists of Chinese heritage and making it hard for them to work together.
“We’re looking at how we fight back against threats from the P.R.C. government,” a spokesman for the Department of Justice said last week.
“We hope to finish the review and give more information in the next few weeks,” he said.
The initiative has led to a lot of fraud cases against academic researchers, like around a dozen on the department’s website. Pleas and convictions have also been made, like last month when a Harvard chemist was convicted of fraud.
But the first case to go to trial, against Anming Hu, a professor of engineering at the University of Tennessee, ended in acquittal last September. A judge said that the government didn’t show enough evidence that Dr. Hu planned to defraud funding agencies. Seven cases against researchers have been dropped by the Justice Department in the last few months.
The case against Dr. Chen, who has been a naturalized U.S. citizen since 2000, is the most high-profile one that has been thrown out so far. It was against an elite scientist who had a lot of support from his university.
In Boston, Andrew E. Lelling, who was the federal prosecutor at the time, said that “the allegations of the complaint suggest that this was not just about greed, but also about loyalty to China.” A special agent in charge of the FBI in Boston says that Dr. Chen “knowingly and willingly” took at least $19 million in federal grants.
In fact, when charges were filed five days after the first one, they were a lot less broad.
During the process of applying for a $2.7 million grant to study heat conduction in polymer structures, Dr. Chen didn’t tell the Department of Energy about seven affiliations. In a progress report, he also didn’t tell the Department of Energy about these affiliations. He worked for the Chinese government as a “fourth overseas expert consultant,” was a “review expert” for the National Natural Science Foundation of China, and was an adviser to the Chinese Scholarship Council, among other things.
He was also charged with not telling the government about a Chinese bank account that had more than $10,000 in it, and with lying about how much money he got from grants.
According to two people who know about the case, Department of Energy officials told prosecutors that the affiliations Dr. Chen didn’t say about would not have kept the agency from giving him the grant money.
Former officials say the case was rushed in its final stages, which happened after the Jan. 6 riot and before President Biden was sworn in. They say the case was pushed through because they didn’t want to talk about a still-open case. It was unusual for the National Security Division to review the indictment for Dr. Chen for about 48 hours before he was arrested, officials say, because the case is so well-known.
In a statement, Dr. Chen’s lawyer, a partner at Nixon Peabody, said that the scientist had not reneged on his promises to the government in China, as he had said.
His boss told him, “He wasn’t in any kind of talent program.” “He was never a researcher for Beijing outside of China.” He told the government and no one else what he had to tell them. “He never lied to the government or anyone else.”
They have met with people from the China Initiative’s most vocal critics, Asian American rights groups, and universities to talk about possible changes to the program.
China Initiative: The name may be changed in the coming weeks, and the cases may no longer be separate but instead be added to the National Security Division’s caseload. Current and former Justice Department officials say this is a possibility. After talking about giving amnesty in the pending grant fraud cases, officials are leaning toward resolving each case on its own, the officials said.
One of the people who want the Justice Department to stop prosecuting people based on grant disclosures is Mr. Lelling, who is now a lawyer in Boston.
On LinkedIn last month, he said the China Initiative was meant to stop espionage, but it had “drifted and, in some significant ways, lost its focus.” This is what he meant.
In an interview, he said, “You don’t want people to be afraid of working with each other.” “There’s no doubt that the China Initiative has caused researchers to be afraid.” That’s one reason why D.O.J. should take a step back.
However, he said that the prosecutions of academics had done some good. This has led research scientists to be far more open about how much money they get from China.
General deterrence has been done “in spades,” he said. “We have scared the whole research community.” In this case, “What is deterrence? Because you’re afraid of getting a ticket, you don’t speed. It’s all about making people afraid.
Prosecution: Friends and colleagues say that Dr. Chen, who was the head of the department of mechanical engineering at M.I.T., was deeply affected by the case. He had to raise money for university research projects in countries around the world, which was a job that required him to do.
There was a letter last year that said, “Questioning his loyalty is an outrage, and it reminds us of dark times in history.” Afterwards, it said there were “many faculty and students of Chinese heritage who are afraid and intimidated.”
It took three days for a GoFundMe page that was set up by Dr. Chen’s daughter, Karen, to raise $400,000 for him. She said on the page that if there were any money left over, it would go to charities that help other scientists who are being prosecuted.
“My dad is going to fight these charges because he thinks they could be bad for the whole academic community and for all Chinese Americans,” she said.
When the charges against Chen were dropped, Yoel Fink, an M.I.T. professor who helped organize a letter-writing campaign, said it raised real questions about the use of these weapons by police and whether the use of these weapons was right.
“These weapons are very powerful,” he said. Everybody, if those weapons are turned on you, you break down. During this time, what can we ask? When these weapons hurt innocent people, what can we expect to happen?