Yet another prosecution alleging that an academic failed to report ties to China illustrates the government’s multi-agency focus on this issue and the costs and pressures imposed on U.S. universities.

A Texas A&M engineering professor and NASA researcher was arrested and charged with several crimes stemming from allegedly hiding his ties to Chinese companies and universities.[1] In a criminal complaint unsealed on August 23, 2020, the DOJ charged Zhengdong Cheng with making false statements, conspiracy, and wire fraud based on allegations that he willfully deceived NASA and Texas A&M in connection with obtaining a NASA research grant.[2] Federal law prohibits NASA from entering into collaboration or coordination with China or any Chines-owned company.[3]

The case against Cheng represents only a part of Texas A&M’s interactions with the government on this issue. Over a year ago, on June 13, 2019, the U.S. Department of Education sent letters to Texas A&M and Georgetown explaining that the agency believed the schools were not fully reporting all funding received from other countries, including China.[4] At that time, Texas A&M said in a statement that school officials “are reviewing it and hope to have this resolved soon.”[5]

The Wall Street Journal later reported in January 2020 that Texas A&M had conducted an 18-month investigation to determine how much funding its professors were receiving from foreign sources.[6] University officials were reportedly “astounded” that more than 100 faculty members were involved in Chinese talent recruitment efforts despite only five disclosing their participation to the school.[7]

Now, more than two years after the school started its internal probe, Zheng has been charged in federal court. After the charges were announced, Texas A&M’s Chancellor stated, “We worked closely with the FBI on this case, and we gladly will work with them again as needed.”[8]

The probe has also raised media scrutiny on the school, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo being asked about the investigation’s findings during an interview on cable news.[9]

The length of Texas A&M’s internal probe, the number of Texas A&M employees reviewed, and the involvement of DOJ and the Education Department show the costs and risks imposed on colleges and universities by the government’s ongoing focus on academics with ties to China. This case illustrates the need for U.S. institutions of higher education to understand these risks, to implement appropriate compliance programs, and to conduct thorough investigations where necessary.[10]


[1] Press Release, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, NASA Researcher Arrested for False Statements and Wire Fraud in Relation to China’s Talents Program (Aug. 24, 2020).

[2] Complaint, United States v. Cheng, No. 20-mj-1511 (S.D. Tex. Aug. 20, 2020).

[3] Congress created these restrictions in Section 1340(a) of The Department of Defense and Full-Year Appropriations Act, Public Law 112-10, and Section 539 of the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriation Act of 2012, Public Law 112-55.

[4] A Notice by the Education Department on 06/28/2019, 84 Fed. Reg 31,052 (June 28, 2019).

[5] Benjamin Wermund, Georgetown, Texas A&M Probed by Trump Administration Over Foreign Gift Reporting, Politico (June 27, 2019).

[6] Aruna Viswanatha & Kate O’Keeffe, China’s Funding of U.S. Researchers Raises Red Flags, Wall Street Journal (Jan. 30, 2020).

[7] Id.

[8] Staff Report, Texas A&M Professor Arrested, Accused of Lying About Chinese Affiliations while Working with NASA, The Battalion (Aug. 24, 2020).

[9] Interview, U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary Michael R. Pompeo With Lou Dobbs of Lou Dobbs Tonight (Feb. 11, 2020)

[10] For more information on these and other risks posed to U.S. institutions of higher education, see Steptoe’s Client Alert, Higher Education Under the Prosecutorial Microscope (June 26, 2020).