On the morning of his arrest nearly two years ago, Harvard University professor and renowned nanoscientist Charles Lieber told two FBI agents he had never been paid by a Chinese university, other than travel costs.
But Lieber’s account changed quickly during the interrogation at the campus police station when the agents handed him a copy of a five-year agreement he had signed with the Wuhan University of Technology in 2011, agreeing to pay him up to $50,000 a month, plus $158,000 in living expenses.
“That’s pretty damning,” Lieber said during the Jan. 28, 2020, interview, which was videotaped and played for jurors Friday at Lieber’s federal trial in Boston. He described traveling from Wuhan to Boston with bags of cash he was paid, totaling between $50,000 and $100,000, money he admitted he never declared to the Internal Revenue Service.
Lieber, 62, told investigators he didn’t do it for the money. He described himself as “younger and stupid” and believed his collaboration with the university would boost his recognition by encouraging other scientists to build on work he had pioneered in the 1990s.
“This is embarrassing,” Lieber told the agents. “Every scientist wants a Nobel Prize.”
Prosecutors have told jurors it wasn’t a crime for Lieber to accept money from the university or the Thousand Talents program, created by the Chinese government to recruit high-level scientists, but it was illegal for him to hide his financial arrangement from the US Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health, which funded much of his research at Harvard. He is charged with making false statements to the government, filing false tax returns, and failing to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts.
Lieber, the former chairman of Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology, has been on paid administrative leave since his arrest.
During the three-hour interview after he was arrested and read his rights, Lieber nervously scanned documents handed to him by FBI agents Robert Plumb and Kara Spice. After initially saying he should maybe get a lawyer, he answered all of their questions and admitted he shouldn’t have done some of the things he did.
“I can’t even believe I did this,” Lieber said when the agents confronted him with an e-mail he had written to a professor at the university, indicating he wanted to be paid partly in cash with the rest deposited into a Chinese bank account.
He had been approached to be a “strategic scientist” to help the university elevate its standing, he said.
He said he didn’t recall exactly how much he was paid, but estimated it could be more than $50,000, though probably less than $100,000.
“It’s my mistake and obviously I made a mistake,” he said.
Lieber said he thought he made fewer than six trips to China around 2012 and was paid between $10,000 and $20,000 cash each time.
“I guess I just put it in my bag and brought it back,” he said. When asked if he reported it as income to the Internal Revenue Service, he said, “If I brought it back I didn’t declare it and that’s illegal.”
He said he spent the money on groceries, housekeeping, and other daily expenses, and made no extravagant purchases.
Lieber said he didn’t know how much money, if any, is in the Chinese bank account that the university opened for him because he has never accessed it.
Lieber, who has been battling cancer for years, said in 2014 he called to check the balance on the Chinese account when he was ill, feeling desperate, and worried about his family’s financial security. He said he believed the balance was about $200,000 at the time, but decided not to try to withdraw it because “I didn’t need it and I guess because we didn’t believe it was the right thing.”
Prosecutors also allege Lieber was promised up to $1.5 million to establish a joint Harvard-Wuhan research lab at the Chinese university, but failed to disclose the arrangement to Harvard.
Lieber told the agents he didn’t have much interaction with the Wuhan university after 2016 and it was “a wake-up call” two years later when Department of Defense agents asked if he had ever participated in the Thousand Talents program.
The FBI agents showed Lieber an e-mail he sent to a Wuhan university professor indicating he wasn’t going to share information about their collaboration with Harvard or the government.
“I don’t think I did anything wrong except I shouldn’t have had an agreement and accepted money,” Lieber told the agent.
“Why not be honest with them?” Plumb asked.
“You’re right, it was wrong,” Lieber said. “I was afraid of being arrested, like I am right now.”