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Texas A&M professor who is also NASA researcher arrested over alleged ties with China

A Texas A&M University professor faces criminal charges after allegedly hiding his ties with a Chinese government program. (Dreamstime/TNS)

A Texas A&M University professor who is also a NASA researcher faces criminal charges of conspiracy, making false statements and wire fraud after he allegedly hid affiliations with a Chinese government program designed to advance that country’s high-tech development.

Zhengdong Cheng, 53, of College Station, was taken into custody Sunday, federal prosecutor said Monday.

Cheng’s accused of concealing his ties to China’s Talents Program, which U.S. officials say aims at attracting and recruiting high-end scientific talent in order to further the country’s scientific development, national security and economic prosperity.

Cheng was scheduled to make an appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Sam Sheldon in Houston later Monday.

“China is building an economy and academic institutions with bricks stolen from others all around the world,” U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick said in a press release. “While 1.4 million foreign researchers and academics are here in the U.S. for the right reasons, the Chinese Talents Program exploits our open and free universities. These conflicts must be disclosed, and we will hold those accountable when such conflict violates the law.”

According to the complaint, Cheng is not allowed to participate, collaborate or coordinate not only with China, but with any Chinese university or Chinese-owned company, under the terms of his grant.

According to the criminal complaint, which was unsealed Monday, Cheng attempted to obscure his personal affiliations with a Chinese university and at least one Chinese company for several years. The charges also allege that Cheng and Texas A&M both received funds as Cheng knowingly passed along false information to Texas A&M and NASA.

The complaint argues that Cheng’s access to NASA’s resources, such as the International Space Station, allowed him to climb the ladder at Guangdong University of Technology, among other universities. Cheng is also being charged for allegedly holding senior positions at these schools while also serving on the People’s Republic of China Talents Program.

“Once again we have witnessed the criminal conflicts that can arise from participation in the Chinese government’s talent program,” Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers said. “Professor Cheng allegedly made false statements to his university and to NASA regarding his affiliations with the Chinese government. The Department of Justice will continue seeking to illuminate the darkness around these talent programs and expose the exploitation of our nation and our prized research institutions.”

Special Agent in Charge Mark Zielinksi said NASA’s funding restrictions are put in place to protect taxpayer-financed research dollars and intellectual property. Zieliknski, who is also part of the NASA Office of Inspector General — Eastern Field Office, said that the government will continue to pursue anybody who attempts to cover up affiliations with Chinese institutions.

“These alleged actions came to light through the tireless work of the FBI-Bryan Resident Agency and NASA-OIG investigative teams,” said Perrye K. Turner, FBI Houston Special Agent in Charge.”We are grateful to TAMU, TAMU System and TAMU Engineering Experiment Station for providing significant assistance through their partnership with us throughout this case.”

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Carolyn Ferko and S. Mark McIntyre will prosecute the case with the help of trial attorney Matthew McKenzie.


© 2020 The Dallas Morning News

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