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Coronavirus slows sentencing of ex-Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist with ties to China

Los Alamos National Lab, Los Alamos, New Mexico (Larry Lamsa/Flickr)

The raging coronavirus crisis has effectively pushed back a sentencing hearing for Turab Lookman, an ex-Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist, who earlier this year pleaded guilty to lying to authorities about his involvement with a Chinese recruitment scheme.

Lookman’s sentencing hearing was set for April 22, court documents show; the hearing is now set for July 22. A federal judge last month granted Lookman’s request for a 90-day delay in light of the ongoing pandemic, New Mexico’s social and economic crackdown and the intricacies of the case at hand.

“Dr. Lookman is nearly 70 years old and has a family history of significant cardiac disease. He is thus in a high-risk pool for serious and potentially fatal complications associated with COVID-19,” an April 15 court filing reads. “Counsel submits that, under the unique circumstances presented by the pandemic, it would be inappropriate to require Dr. Lookman to attend a public gathering of a sentencing hearing and place himself in potentially great medical danger as a result at this time.”

More than 4,000 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, have been reported in New Mexico. State leadership recently extended a stay-at-home order there.

The federal government did not object to the hearing’s new date.

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Lookman — who, at times, has been a resident of four different countries, according to court documents — entered a plea agreement in January. He was arrested by the FBI in May 2019.

A federal grand jury indicted Lookman on three counts of making false statements about his connection to foreign governments and China’s Thousand Talents Program.

The Thousand Talents Program is designed to coax individuals engaged in research and development in the U.S. to share information and knowledge with China in exchange for money or other compensation. The stratagem has been described as a threat to U.S. national security.

“Foreign trained scientists and experts provide China access to know-how, expertise, and foreign technology — all necessary for China’s economic development and military modernization,” states a lengthy Senate subcommittee report. It notes the U.S. Department of Energy, which oversees Los Alamos National Laboratory, “has been slow to address vulnerabilities surrounding the openness” of its labs and their foreign collaborators.

“It comes as no surprise then,” the report later reads, that the Energy Department identified Thousand Talents Program “members who worked on sensitive research at national labs.”

There are 17 total national labs in the U.S. The nearest to Aiken is the Savannah River National Laboratory at the Savannah River Site, the nuclear-waste-and-weapons complex.

By June 2018, Lookman had been recruited by, applied for and accepted into the Thousand Talents Program, according to his plea agreement. When a Los Alamos counterintelligence officer inquired about his ties to Chinese recruitment programs or jobs, Lookman lied.

A 2017 press release from the national lab, located in northern New Mexico near Sante Fe and Albuquerque, recognized Lookman for “outstanding science research and leadership.” He was named a laboratory fellow, a prestigious title.

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© 2020 the Aiken Standard