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Harvard professor charged in federal court with failing to pay taxes on income from Chinese university

Charles Lieber, a world-renowned nanoscientist and former chair of Harvard University’s chemistry and chemical biology department, appeared in federal court in Boston in January.
Charles Lieber, a world-renowned nanoscientist and former chair of Harvard University’s chemistry and chemical biology department, appeared in federal court in Boston in January.Jonathan Wiggs/The Boston Globe

A world-renowned Harvard University chemistry professor was charged Tuesday in federal court in Boston with failing to report income from China’s Wuhan University of Technology to the IRS, according to the United States attorney’s office for Massachusetts.

Charles Lieber, 61, was indicted by a grand jury on two counts of failing to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts and two counts of making and subscribing a false income tax return, the office of US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling said in a statement.

Lieber was also indicted last month on two counts of lying to federal authorities.

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An attorney for Lieber, Marc L. Mukasey, said Tuesday’s indictment was “flat-out wrong.”

“The notion that Professor Lieber was engaged in improper work with China is laughable,” Mukasey said in an e-mail. “He didn’t hide anything, and he didn’t get paid as the government alleges. Ask his students and his colleagues: there is not a more gifted, selfless, dedicated, patriotic scientist in this country than Charlie Lieber. He is innocent and his name will be cleared.”

A Harvard spokesman declined to comment Tuesday. When Lieber was arrested at his campus office in January, Harvard said the charges against him were “extremely serious” and he had been placed on paid administrative leave.

Joseph R. Bonavolonta, the FBI special agent in charge of the bureau’s Boston office, said after Lieber’s arrest that China was recruiting top scientists from other nations as part of an effort to “replace the United States as the world superpower.”

Lieber, the former chairman of Harvard’s Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, is also a prominent nanoscientist and a prolific inventor and entrepreneur. He served as the principal investigator of Harvard’s Lieber Research Group, which was allotted more than $15 million in federal research grants from 2008 to 2019, prosecutors said.

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But while working for Harvard, Lieber allegedly began moonlighting as a “strategic scientist” for the Wuhan University of Technology and spent three years working under contract for China’s Thousand Talents Plan, a program that recruits and cultivates top scientific talent to further China’s national goals, prosecutors said.

The US government has warned that the recruitment program is an effort by China to steal American proprietary information.

Wuhan University of Technology allegedly paid Lieber up to $50,000 a month under the Thousand Talents contract, with up to $150,000 more per month for living expenses. He was also given more than $1.5 million to build a research lab at the university, according to prosecutors.

Lieber allegedly pocketed a salary and other income from the Wuhan University of Technology without disclosing the earnings to the IRS, prosecutors said. He also allegedly opened a Chinese bank account in Wuhan in 2012, with assistance from Wuhan University of Technology officials, who went on to deposit portions of Lieber’s salary into the account.

US law requires taxpayers to report any foreign bank account that holds more than $10,000 at any time during the year, but Lieber allegedly did not notify the IRS of his Chinese bank account when filing taxes for 2014 or 2015, according to the statement.

Lieber also allegedly lied to federal investigators in 2018 and 2019 about his ties to the university and the Thousand Talents Plan, prosecutors said.

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He faces a sentence of up to five years in prison, a fine of $250,000, and three years of supervised release for each charge of making false statements to federal authorities, according to the statement.

For each charge of making and subscribing false income tax returns, he faces up to three years in prison, a $100,000 fine, and one year of supervised release.

For each charge of filing to file a notification of a foreign bank account, he faces a sentence of up to five years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and three years of supervised release, prosecutors said.


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.