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Dhaka Tribune

Nasa researcher pleads guilty in China ties case

Philip Hilder, Cheng's attorney, said the professor was relieved that this unfortunate chapter of his life is behind

Update : 28 Sep 2022, 07:01 PM

A Nasa researcher and Texas A&M University professor pleaded guilty to charges related to hiding his ties to a university created by the Chinese government while accepting federal grant money.

Zhengdong Cheng pleaded guilty to two counts — violation of Nasa regulations and falsifying official documents — during a hearing in Houston federal court Thursday.

Cheng's conviction was part of the China Initiative program, which first started under the Trump administration. But in February, the Justice Department abandoned the program after complaints it chilled academic collaboration and contributed to anti-Asian bias. The department had also endured high-profile setbacks in individual prosecutions, resulting in the last year's dismissal of multiple criminal cases against academic researchers. The Justice Department planned to impose a higher bar for such prosecutions.

Cheng was initially charged with wire fraud, conspiracy, and false statements 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 during his pretrial incarceration — about 13 months.

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

Philip Hilder, Cheng's attorney, said the professor was "relieved that this unfortunate chapter of his life is behind."

But Hilder was critical of the China Initiative program, saying its original purpose was "to fight economic espionage ... that was not the case in his matter."

"The China Initiative ... has now been phased out as a Justice Department priority. The overall mission stays the same, to ferret out economic espionage, but the focus is to target wrongdoers by their deeds and not by their ethnicity," Hilder said.

Prosecutors accused Cheng, hired by Texas A&M in 2004, of concealing his work in China even as his team of researchers received nearly $750,000 in grant money for space research. Nasa is restricted from using funds for collaboration or coordination with China, Chinese institutions, or any Chinese-owned company.

But, prosecutors say Cheng violated those restrictions by maintaining multiple undisclosed associations with China, including serving as director of a soft matter institute at a technology university in Guangdong, China, established by China's Ministry of Education.

"Texas A&M and the Texas A&M System take security very seriously, and we constantly are on the lookout for vulnerabilities, especially when national security is involved," John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M System, said in a statement Friday. "We will continue to work with our federal partners to keep our intellectual property secure and out of the hands of foreign governments who seek to do us harm."

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

Hilder said Cheng loves academia but is evaluating his options on what he does next.

"He's a proud, loyal United States citizen, and he looks forward to returning to being a productive member of our society," Hilder said.

In a tweet 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 at US research institutions and companies."

In February, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen told reporters he believed genuine national security concerns prompted the initiative. He said he did not think investigators had targeted professors based on ethnicity. Still, he also said he had to be responsive to concerns he heard, including from Asian American groups.

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