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NASA professor, researcher pleads guilty in China Ties case

A NASA researcher and professor at Texas A&M University has pleaded guilty to charges related to concealing his ties to a Chinese government-created university while accepting federal grants.

Zhengdong Cheng pleaded guilty to two counts – violation of NASA regulations and falsification of official documents – during a hearing in federal court in Houston on Thursday.

Cheng’s sentencing was part of a program called the China Initiative, which was first launched during the Trump administration. But in February, the Justice Department scrapped the program after complaints it chilled academic collaboration and contributed to anti-Asian bias. The department has also suffered high-profile setbacks in individual lawsuits, leading to the dismissal of several criminal cases against academic researchers over the past year. The Justice Department has said it plans to impose a higher bar for such prosecutions.

Cheng was originally charged with wire fraud, conspiracy and misrepresentation when he was arrested in August 2020. But he pleaded guilty to the new charges as part of an agreement with federal prosecutors.

US District Judge Andrew Hanen sentenced Cheng to the time he had already served while on remand – about 13 months.

Cheng also agreed to pay restitution of $86,876 and a fine of $20,000.

Philip Hilder, Cheng’s lawyer, said the professor was “relieved that this unfortunate chapter in his life is behind”.

But Hilder criticized the China Initiative program, saying its original purpose was “to fight economic espionage… that was not the case in his case”.

“The China Initiative…has now been removed as a Department of Justice priority. The overall mission remains the same, to flush out economic espionage, but the goal is to target wrongdoers by their actions, not by their affiliation. ethnic,” Hilder said. .

Prosecutors accused Cheng, who was hired by Texas A&M in 2004, of covering up his work in China even as his team of researchers received nearly $750,000 in space research grants. NASA is not permitted to use funds for any collaboration or coordination with China, Chinese institutions, or any Chinese-owned businesses.

But, according to prosecutors, Cheng violated those restrictions by having several undisclosed associations with China, including as the director of a soft matter institute at a technological university in Guangdong, China, which was established by the Chinese Ministry of Education.

“Texas A&M and the Texas A&M System take security very seriously, and we are constantly on the lookout for vulnerabilities, especially when national security is at stake,” Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp said in a statement. Friday. “We will continue to work with our federal partners to protect our intellectual property and keep it safe from foreign governments that seek to harm us.”

Cheng was fired from Texas A&M shortly after his arrest. Texas A&M is located approximately 145 kilometers northwest of Houston.

Hilder said Cheng liked academia but was weighing his options on what he would do next.

“He is a proud and loyal American citizen and looks forward to once again being a productive member of our society,” Hilder said.

In a tweet on Friday, FBI Houston Special Agent in Charge James Smith said his agency “prioritizes investigating threats to academia as part of our commitment to preventing intellectual property theft in American research institutes and companies”.

In February, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen told reporters he believed the initiative was motivated by genuine national security concerns. He said he did not believe investigators had targeted professors on the basis of their ethnicity, but he also said he had to be sensitive to the concerns he had heard, especially from American groups. of Asian descent.

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