Federal prosecutors recently brought new indictments against U.S. academics in two separate cases involving alleged unreported ties to China. The Department of Justice moved forward its cases against the Harvard and University of Arkansas-affiliated professors as part of a broader push to combat what Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers referred to as “China’s targeting of research and academic collaborations within the United States in order to obtain U.S. technology illegally.”
Both professors had ties to the Thousand Talents Program, a Chinese government program started in 2008 with the goal of improving China’s access to talent, research, and technology that the Department of Justice has been particularly focused on.
On January 28, 2020, Charles Lieber, the chair of Harvard’s chemistry department, was arrested and charged by complaint with making false statements to Department of Defense investigators and the National Institutes of Health when he denied being asked to participate in the Thousand Talents Plan. The government alleged that the nanotechnology expert did, in fact, enter into a three-year contract under the Thousand Talents Program, in exchange for $50,000 per month, living expenses, and grant money. Lieber was indicted on the false statement counts in June, and on July 28 the government expanded its case by bringing a superseding indictment alleging that Lieber filed false tax returns and failed to file reports of foreign bank accounts to the IRS.
Simon Ang, an electrical engineering professor and researcher at the University of Arkansas, was arrested on May 8, 2020 and charged by complaint with wire fraud. The government alleged that Ang received funding from Chinese companies and from the Thousand Talents Program, but hid those ties in order to obtain grants from U.S. agencies, including NASA. The government recently broadened the charges against Ang by bringing an indictment charging 42 counts of wire fraud and two counts of passport fraud.
The universities involved in these cases are cooperating with the government investigations, according to media reports.
The government has pursued aggressive tactics in similar cases, as well. In a hearing on July 31, 2020, the government argued that a judge should revoke the bond of a Stanford University visiting scholar who was charged with wire fraud for allegedly concealing her Chinese military duty status in her visa application following the revelation that her six-year-old daughter returned to China without her.
The number of these cases and prosecutors’ aggressive approaches illustrate the seriousness of the Department of Justice’s focus on investigating and prosecuting unreported ties between U.S. academics and Chinese institutions. Aside from the risk to individual academics, American colleges and universities also face significant reputational and financial risks. It is more important than ever that colleges and universities understand these risks, craft and maintain robust compliance programs, conduct thorough (but cost-efficient) investigations, and effectively navigate the complex issues of disclosure and cooperation with DOJ and other relevant agencies.
 Press Release, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, University of Arkansas Professor Indicted for Wire Fraud and Passport Fraud (July 29, 2020).
 Ellen Barry and Gina Kolata, China’s Lavish Funds Lured U.S. Scientists. What Did It Get in Return?, New York Times (Feb. 6, 2020).
 Devlin Barrett, FBI Arrests Harvard Chemist; Two Others Charged in Chinese Research Cases, Washington Post (Jan. 28, 2020).
 Press Release, US Dep’t of Justice, Harvard University Professor and Two Chinese Nationals Charged in Three Separate China Related Cases (Jan. 28, 2020).
 Press Release, US Dep’t of Justice, Harvard University Professor Indicted on False Statement Charges (June 9, 2020).
 Press Release, US Dep’t of Justice, Harvard University Professor Charged with Tax Offenses (July 28, 2020).
 Press Release, US Dep’t of Justice, University of Arkansas Professor Arrested for Wire Fraud (May 11, 2020).
 Matthew Farwell and Katie Benner, Arkansas Professor Is Accused of Hiding Chinese Funding, N.Y. Times (May 11, 2020).
 Press Release, US Dep’t of Justice, University of Arkansas Professor Indicted for Wire Fraud and Passport Fraud (July 29, 2020).
 Bill Chappell, Acclaimed Harvard Scientist Is Arrested, Accused Of Lying About Ties To China, NPR (Jan. 28, 2020), (“Harvard is cooperating with federal authorities, including the National Institutes of Health, and is initiating its own review of the alleged misconduct.”); Jaime Adame, Ex-UA Professor Faces Fraud Counts Over Grants, Arkansas Democrat Gazette (July 30, 2020), (quoting a university spokesperson who stated that “[t]he University continues to actively cooperate with the federal investigation in this matter”).
 Hannah Albarazi, Stanford Scholar Alleged To Be Chinese Agent Wins Bail, Law360 (July 31, 2020).
 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).