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Top Harvard scientist who hid millions in secret payments from China convicted on all charges

Harvard University (Dreamstime/TNS)
December 22, 2021

Charles Lieber, a Harvard professor and one of America’s top research chemists, was found guilty on Tuesday of hiding his ties to a Chinese government recruitment program and accepting millions in payments.

The Department of Justice announced Lieber was convicted by a jury on two counts of making false statements to federal authorities, two counts of making a false income tax return and two counts of failing to report foreign bank and financial accounts with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). All six charges stemmed from Lieber’s efforts to conceal his ties with China’s Thousand Talents Program and the Wuhan University of Technology (WUT).

Lieber served as Principal Investigator of the Lieber Research Group at Harvard University, which received more than $15 million in federal research grants from 2008 to 2019. During the same time Lieber led his research group at Harvard, and unbeknownst to the Ivy League university, Lieber also acted as a “Strategic Scientist” at China’s WUT and then as a contractual participant in China’s Thousand Talents Plan.

The Thousand Talents Program is a Chinese government-backed effort to recruit primarily Chinese citizens who have been educated in elite programs overseas. The program aims to find these highly educated Chinese citizens and recruit them to bring their talents back and serve Chinese government interests.

According to prosecutors, Lieber worked by contract on behalf of the Thousand Talents Program from at least 2012 to 2015. Under the terms of his three-year contract, WUT paid Lieber a salary of up to $50,000 per month, living expenses of up to $150,000 and awarded him more than $1.5 million to establish a research lab at WUT.

Lieber was accused of concealing the income he received through WUT and the Thousand Talents Program in his 2013 and 2014 tax filings.

Lieber was also accused of opening a bank account at a Chinese bank during a trip to Wuhan in 2012. Through this bank account, Lieber reportedly received his regular salary payments from WUT. According to prosecutors, Lieber failed to disclose the account, in violation of U.S. law requiring citizens to disclose to the IRS the existence of any foreign bank account that holds more than $10,000 at any time during a given year. Lieber failed to disclose the account for the 2014 and 2015 tax years.

Prosecutors further charged that Lieber lied to federal investigators in 2018 and 2019 about his involvement in the Thousand Talents Program and his affiliation with WUT.

As the New York Times reported, while it isn’t illegal for scientists to participate in Chinese recruitment efforts like the Thousand Talents Program, U.S. scientists are required to disclose their participation to the U.S. government, which often also funds their research and can deem working with China as a conflict of interests.

According to CBS, Lieber’s defense attorney Marc Mukasey argued that federal investigators kept no written record of their interviews with Lieber and argued that prosecutors could not prove Lieber acted “knowingly, intentionally, or willfully, or that he made any material false statement.”

A jury reportedly returned with a guilty verdict on all six charges after about two hours and 45 minutes of deliberation.

No date has been set at this time for Lieber’s sentencing.

A charge of making false statements to federal investigators is punishable by up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine. A charge of making false tax returns is punishable by up to three years in prison, a year of supervised release and a $100,000 fine. A charge of failing to disclose foreign bank accounts is punishable by up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine.