US prosecutors recommend dropping case against MIT professor over China ties: Source

Gang Chen was charged in January 2021 as part of the department's "China Initiative". PHOTO: REUTERS

BOSTON (REUTERS) - Prosecutors have recommended that the United States Justice Department drop charges against a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor accused of concealing his ties to China when seeking federal grant money, a person familiar with the matter said on Friday (Jan 14).

Federal prosecutors in Boston decided to seek the dismissal of the case against Chinese-born mechanical engineer and nanotechnologist Gang Chen. It was the latest setback for a crackdown on Chinese influence within US research.

Boston prosecutors recommended the case's dismissal in recent weeks based on new information, the person said, adding the Justice Department has not made a final decision.

Chen was accused of failing to disclose, among other things, that he served as an "overseas expert" to the Chinese government and sat on the advisory board of Shenzhen's Southern University of Science and Technology, or SUSTech, when applying for a US Department of Energy grant.

But Mr Brian Kelly, a lawyer for Chen at Nixon Peabody, said last week that "nothing significant was omitted on his application and several of the government's allegations were simply wrong".

MIT president Rafael Reif has defended its US$25 million (S$33.7 million) collaboration SUSTech as furthering MIT's research mission. Faculty in a letter last year rallied around Chen, saying the case against him vilified normal research activities.

Mr Kelly and co-counsel Rob Fisher had no comment on Friday. MIT declined to comment. Mr Wyn Hornbuckle, a Justice Department spokesman, had no comment on Chen's case.

The Wall Street Journal first reported the recommendation.

Chen was charged in January 2021 as part of the department's "China Initiative", launched during former president Donald Trump's administration to counter suspected Chinese economic espionage and research theft.

Targets included university researchers. A Harvard professor, Charles Lieber, last month was convicted of lying about his ties to a China-run recruitment programme. He is expected to appeal.

Critics say the initiative chilled academic research and targeted Chinese researchers through racial profiling. And despite the Harvard win, several other cases have faltered.

A Tennessee professor was acquitted by a judge last year following a mistrial, and prosecutors dropped charges against six other researchers.

President Joe Biden's administration has continued the initiative, though Mr Hornbuckle said the Justice Department is reviewing its approach, a review that should be completed in the coming weeks.

Ms Rachael Rollins, newly appointed US attorney in Massachusetts, during a meeting with reporters on Thursday would not address whether prosecutors should stop bringing China Initiative cases.

But she said "the government will always look to see whether we can prove our case at various points".

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